Speech of Maria Leonor Gerona Robredo Vice President of the Philippines for the University of Cambridge’s MPhil in Public Policy Class of 2021 “Leadership in the Age of Democratic Challenges”
Hello to the students of the University of Cambridge’s MPP Class of 2020-2021, the Cambridge University Filipino Society, and the faculty members of the Department of Politics and International Studies. Thank you for inviting me to today’s conversation.
As we speak, the world continues to reel from the effects of COVID-19. Healthcare systems are being overwhelmed; economies are shrinking; entire populations edge closer to poverty and hunger. The inequality gap widens, pressing harder on the most vulnerable. On top of this, rights and freedoms that we have long thought inalienable are being challenged, brushed aside, and violated. Disinformation campaigns propagating false binaries are likewise not helping our cause: Health versus the economy; the supposedly “undisciplined” populace versus law enforcers; medical frontliners crying for a timeout versus online trolls claiming to reflect the rest of the public; and yes, even women versus men, with female stalwarts of freedom and rights harassed, attacked, and even put to jail, for speaking truth to power.
This is precisely the language of populist-authoritarians around the world: Fueled by propaganda and disinformation, they deepen fissures in society, tap into long-simmering fears and anxieties, and create a specter of the malevolent other. They normalize aggression, weaponize frustrations, and dismantle structures for truth-telling and civic discourse.
Look around the world, however, and one would be hard pressed to find a place where such a conflict-driven mentality has yielded meaningful results. The pandemic has shown that the best kinds of leaders—in a crisis or even during more normal times—actually roll up their sleeves, do the hard work, and put in the hours along with the rest of their people. Leaders that act not only with urgency and decisiveness; but create a clear view of the horizon, and craft clear plans to get to that horizon, based not on what sounds good from the pulpit, but on accurate information. Leaders that trust science to provide a common baseline of experience, sending the message that we are all going through the same struggles, and together, we will get through this, too.
We have seen this kind of leadership in more robust democracies such as Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, President Tsai Ing-wen, Chancellor Angela Merkel—all of them channeled strength and quiet courage, in a manner that is firm yet dignified, that listens and collaborates, and that pulls everyone together towards a common cause.
Look back into history, in fact, and we will see more examples that give flesh to this insight: It is only through pulling together that humanity has overcome the biggest crises that have come its way. And while demagogues and peddlers of disinformation might insist on finding enemies in the midst of this pandemic, our own experience in the Philippines bears out the truth: In times of struggle, the most powerful human impulse is to reach out, to connect, to unite.
We are fortunate to see this spirit alive and well in our daily work at the Office of the Vice President. Throughout our COVID-19 Response Initiatives, we have seen the selflessness of teachers and artists who produced instructional videos which helped parents and students adjust to online learning; the many volunteers, organizations, and ordinary citizens who helped provide PPE sets, care kits, and support packages for frontliners, or even the next meal for the most vulnerable of our countrymen. All of our efforts—from early projects like our free shuttle services, to more recent efforts like the Swab Cab and our telemedicine program called Bayanihan E-Konsulta—have only become possible through the selflessness of volunteers and partners. In fact, just over a month since we launched E-Konsulta, we are overwhelmed by the outpouring of support—as of May 22, 997 volunteer doctors and 3,085 external volunteers who will serve as call center operators have already signed up.
There are more examples. Across the country, community pantries have become a phenomenon, anchored on a message of solidarity: Give what you can; take what you need. Elsewhere, Filipinos from all walks of life are contributing their skills and dipping into their pockets, filling in the gaps in government response, determined to ease their fellowmen's hunger and suffering. From the frontlines of healthcare facilities to the backdoors of relief centers; from big corporate foundations to a roomful of friends pitching in for a sack of rice; we have seen Filipino selflessness, sacrifice, and heroism.
This is what we mean when we say that Filipinos respond to the worst of times with the best in ourselves. The best in ourselves means that part of us that refuses to approach the world in terms of “us versus them.” It is that part of us that sees only a hungry neighbor, a tired frontliner, a child desperate to save his ailing mother; that sees another human being worthy of dignity and empathy, and helps without a second thought.
Our people are responding to the social anxiety, the uncertainty, and the massive gaps in official support in the purest, perhaps most democratic way possible: We are treating each individual as worthy of our compassion; we are finding ways to come together and participate, perhaps even in spite of government. We are affirming the truth that there is no way through any crisis but together.
This, perhaps, is the challenge of leadership in an age of deep democratic challenges: To pull people together, to be a light that diffuses polarities induced by populist bluster, and to constantly affirm the commonalities that bind us: our values, our rights, our worth as human beings. To show that each individual is worthy of compassion; to treat every citizen as being on a single side. At a time when messages of divisiveness are being declared from the highest pulpits, true leadership treats unity as an imperative—catalyzing collaboration between sectors and organizations; consulting with experts, advocates, and like-minded peers; harmonizing everyone’s strengths and contributions towards a singular vision; and always, leaning towards the ground and listening to communities. If more such leaders are found, perhaps we may yet begin to harness solidarity to rise to other challenges beyond this pandemic—wars and oppression, the climate crisis, the erosion of trust in institutions.
The path ahead remains difficult; we still have to deal with the threats, the lies, the disinformation. But we forge on and show up every single day to do the work that matters, moving with others, knowing that we are bound not only by this crisis, but by the collective aspiration: A freer, more compassionate, more humane world, where everyone's rights and dignity are upheld. Thank you very much for your time.