31 August 2016
Keynote Message at the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Pasay City
It is with deep honor and much emotion that I address all of you today. One, because each of the nominees for the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, often called Asia’s Nobel Prize, had been chosen on the basis of having lived for causes bigger than themselves and by so doing, change society in a major way.
Two, because my late husband stood on this stage 16 years ago to accept the Ramon Magsaysay Award. And three, because it was his fourth death anniversary just 13 days ago. So, being here this very moment, makes me feel he is very much alive and close by.
Ideas are more powerful than anything in this world. When used to cultivate humanity, ideas are more forceful than guns; more persuasive than money; more commanding even than dictators.
When allowed to take root and nourished into life by someone who is full of bravery and vision, ideas transform us into beings that are truly worthy of this magnificent Earth we live on.
Many of the world’s greatest ideas were borne in difficult circumstances, just like the ideas that came to those nominated to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award tonight. Nothing can be more intractable than Bezwada Wilson’s idea that dalits are not meant to do manual scavenging of human excrement their entire life just because they were born into the social order.
That no human being is meant to do something as demeaning. He went against centuries of social conditioning, and the really remarkable thing was that he convinced not just dalits, but also those who were outside that caste, that they needed to care too.
Now picture in your mind a ragtag team of five, 15-year-old young volunteers sleeping on roadsides, eating nothing but noodles, but ready at any time to respond to calls for help, because road fatality in Laos is said to be the worst in our part of the world.
These five young volunteers were driven to such lengths so that victims of road accidents should no longer be left to die due to lack of emergency assistance. They built their own rescue team with nothing but some private donations, their own pocket money, and empathy in their gut. Their guts, ladies and gentlemen, were only a little bit better than the gut of their ambulance, which sometimes ran out of petrol.
But that was in the beginning. With their sheer perseverance and passion to help, the group now has a firefighting truck, one-boat scuba rescue team, an Emergency Medical Service ambulance and seven other regular ones, three more base stations, and from 2011 to 2015, saved as many as 10,000 lives.
I can only imagine the dedication and commitment of such a team, including their family, especially since they come from poverty themselves.
Thodur Madabushi Krishna was born to a privileged family, trained from the age of six in the aristocratic Karnatik music under masters of the form. But as he learned to love art and culture, so did he question its social basis.
What I love about his story is his firm belief that culture should unite people, rather than divide them. By democratizing access to music, he upended centuries-old thinking and sought to liberate mankind from artificial divisions of caste and race.
But this is not just some information campaign. He dismantled artistic hierarchies by refusing to sing in famous, ticketed events. He is teaching Karnatik everywhere and bringing rural youth that have talent to Chennai to train under well-known artists. This is how you remake the fabric of culture and literally create a better world.
Money works in mysterious ways. This is why my late husband Jesse always made sure our family was insulated from its false comforts by making sure we never got used to its influence.
He would go to extreme lengths to fix busted pipes by himself on weekends and go home to Naga City even when he was Interior Secretary, making sure we lived simple lives.
You see, the true test of integrity is how people handle money. Money and the power that comes with it can sometimes blind even those who have good intentions. The subtle whisperings that come from the conveniences that money can bring lull good people into believing what’s black is white and vice-versa.
But I believe the leaders of Dompet Duafa have figured this out. Through full transparency and accountability in their financial and government systems, their zakat collections have carefully targeted those in their greatest need.
They have grown into the largest philantrophic organization in Indonesia, proving that people do want to share their wealth if they know it is going where it is supposed to go.
The Japanese have a beautiful culture of perfectionism in all they do, aiming for excellence in even in the most minute tasks, and this shows in their efforts to build a better world after the Second World War.
What I find highly inspiring is that the hands and feet of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers are ordinary 20 to 39-year-old volunteers who give at least two years of their lives to work in communities they will get to know for the first time.
Their volunteer work varies widely from automotive repair to polio vaccination to developing science teaching materials for middle school age children. We are at an era where countries are again at war and cultural diversity brings about death and discrimination. There is much need for efforts to create acceptance and tolerance, such as JOCV’s, so we can build a world of real solidarity.
Now, how do you restore faith in the rule of law, in a country where the legal system itself needs much healing and transformation? Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales took on this trenchant problem and while her work is still unfolding, her strict, professional, and systematic efforts have resulted in the makeover of the Office of the Ombudsman, turning it into a beacon of hope for a nation yearning for stronger institutions.
The Ombudsman’s anti-corruption campaign has boldly imposed strict administrative sanctions on high officials, filing cases against a former president; a former vice president; incumbent senators,congressmen, and governors.
She is the first Ombudsman to use the waiver in the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth required of government officials and employees as basis to secure bank records in impeaching one of the country’s highest officials. Her actions speak louder than words.
These are heroes of our day and age, and I thank the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation for showing us consistently for 50 years now that giants walk among us. The annual search reminds us of something so beautiful: that our world is getting better, not worse.
That we can, if we so desire, unite rather than divide.
That beyond the daily desperation, we can choose to find inspiration and act on them.
Nobody gave these six nominees the marching order to go beyond their terms of reference or their task list. They saw a burning need around them, and they went beyond the call of duty to find solutions.
They were burning inspirations, but you know what else is amazing? Their efforts resulted in a groundswell of support.
It is when the people themselves are empowered and empowering when the magic really happens.
You would think that the ills that we see in our society and in the world around us will spur people to action. But more and more, I see the opposite happening. They bring anger, yes.
But they also bring paralysis, inaction, and apathy. We give up because problems seem too difficult to solve.
When we see faces like the Syrian boy Omran, we are moved to tears. But do we ask afterwards: “What do we do about it?”
We cannot let desperation divide us as a nation or as a region. When faced with something as intractable as social dysfunction, we need to move forward as we always do, believing in the innate goodness of human beings rather than retreat to our little corners. We cannot afford to give up.
Many of our nations are now in the last few minutes of a championship game. If we give up now, we will never get up.
But if we turn our eyes to the sun, knowing that it is there even when the skies are dark, we will win the game and fight another one.
But know this: it is not just Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Bezwada Wilson, Thodur Krishna,nor the organizations Dompet Dhuafa, JOCV, or the Ventiane Rescue, who are players in the games of humanity and inspiration.
You are, too.
Find the giant and the hero in you, and their sacrifices and hard work will finally find root in the societies of the world.
You are the final leg of their work.
Without you, without your daily acts of kindness and inspiration and goodness, the awards will not be fully successful. It is you who will give the final free throw.
Remember that your ideas are more powerful than anything in this world. When used to cultivate humanity, your ideas are more forceful than guns; more persuasive than money; more commanding even than dictators.
So act on those ideas that come to you in the darkest hours of the morning.
When you do, I promise you, your influence will spread beyond this lifetime.
Jesse’s influence did, in ways even I didn’t imagine.
Our footprints do live on.
Thank you and let us all go out there and change the world!