February 17, 2016 – President Benigno S. Aquino III’s remarks upon being conferred an honorary degree on Humane Letters by the Loyola Marymount University
|President Benigno S. Aquino III’s remarks upon being conferred an honorary degree on Humane Letters by the Loyola Marymount University|
|Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California|
|17 February 2016|
| First of all, I have to be very honest and tell you that I am a bit anxious, coming before you today. In fact the reason I was a bit late, was the speech that was prepared for me by my normally capable writers was something that left a lot to be desired. So we wound up tackling it for about an hour and a half, and the end result being, I was reminded of the phrase that says something like the enemy of good is perfect. In other words, I am writing the speech while delivering it.
And the pressure obviously comes from because I am speaking before an esteemed Jesuit institution. And, I wonder if before I get back to Manila—we’ll be leaving tonight—if there will be protests from Loyola Marymount of the quality of the education I got from the university I went to. Hopefully I will do justice to all of them.
How do I start out? Perhaps I should explain what to me a Jesuit education meant. And the first concept I want to share with you is—I think we were in our senior year, first semester, and one of our professors said, if we were successful at this point in time, “hopefully you know that you do not know.” And we looked at him with really bewildered expressions. After all of the hours, days, months of cramming everything that you asked us to read? For instance, in one subject—I’m an economics major—the final exam consisted of eight questions for every book that we had to undergo. For instance, there was a book called Asian Drama by Gunnar Myrdal. If I remember correctly, it was three volumes. He’s a Nobel Prize winner. And there were three volumes, if I remember correctly, about a thousand pages per volume, and a total number of questions numbering two, to cover that entire book. So, after cramming all these facts and figures, statistics, all of the concepts, trying to imbibe them, trying to really understand all of them, our professor starts this day in class by saying “I hope now you know that you do not know.”
And he explained it this way: You know you can be anybody, if all you have to do is recite by your own memory that which was imparted to you. But we hope to have been able to accomplish is that we have developed in you an ability to think. And that in turn led to, perhaps, our ability to accept concepts, like when John F. Kennedy said, people see things the way they are, and they ask why. I see the same things and I ask—and I’m paraphrasing—I ask why not? Now, how does that translate to us?
Why do you have to accept the status quo when the status quo does not really address that which is needed by man? And another instance was, we had professor in Political Science by the name of Ms. Advincula, and her task was to teach us the constitution. And this was a period when we had martial law. And the dictator has reserved unto himself the capacity to change the constitution at any time, and on any whim. And she asked, one day: You know when I look at your faces, I see the faces of students who are questioning why they have to study something which is supposed to be the fundamental law of the land only to exist in a universe where tomorrow it may cease to be the fundamental law of the land. Where is the relevance of that which you are asked not just to read, but to memorise and take to heart? And she said: today this is the situation, tomorrow, it may not be. Tomorrow, you may be holding at the reigns of power, and tomorrow, if you do not know the difference between right and wrong, how can anyone expect you or your generation to do that which is right? That is my mission, to teach you right from wrong, so that when the time comes that you do hold the reigns of power, you will do that which is right. Of course at that point it time you were so caught up in the paper chase; in attaining the right grades, etcetera; and even overcoming the challenges of, why would one try to better himself when one expects that this condition will end in a bloody civil war where the people in the forefront will have reached then the conclusion: what’s the point in improving yourself when you thought there was no future for you? And, of course, perhaps the central tenant in the Jesuit education affords to me—I spent my basic education, the middle portion, and the tertiary portion all in a Jesuit institution. The only other institution I went to was also a Catholic school, Kindergarten, and its main influence on me was that in Kindergarten we were expected to be trilingual: English, Filipino, and Spanish. Now, the third aspect that I think was really pressed on all of us in our generation was that of being a Man for Others. The be all and end all of our existence here is how does it relate to the bettering of the conditions of the other, which flows from Christ and God’s admonition that the greatest commandment is to love one another “as you love Me.”
I just spent the last couple of days in Palm Springs with my fellow ASEAN leaders and President Obama. And we’ve had so much discussions, so many different topics. So, President Obama and I find ourselves in more or less in the same situation. We’re about to end our term—in his case his terms and sometimes our conversations would revolve around what we are going to do after our respective terms. So some time before Christmas, I had an opportunity, when he was at the APEC—the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference in Manila—to share with him an experience i had viewing two American films. I said, if you have the time, these were two that helped shape what I am today, perhaps at the very least, I’m sure they will entertain you. Perhaps it will rekindle exactly the challenges that we had to go through. He’s younger than me; I think three years younger than me. The films are Cardinal, and the other one was The Shoes of the Fisherman, with Anthony Quinn. May I concentrate on the Cardinal. The Cardinal talks of the life of a person who will eventually became a cardinal, who started as a priest on the fast track. And, it seemed like, for every situation at that early part of his career, he had—how should I put it?—dogmatic answers to any and every situation. One of the challenges that he had in the beginning of the film was, he had a sister who wanted to marry a person of the Jewish persuasion and, initially, the Jewish guy agreed to be converted. There was a party to get the two families together. The family of the Jewish individual was slighted, and they withdrew their blessing of the union. The younger sister of the main character went to her brother, a priest, and asked: How do I resolve this situation? I am so in love with him; I believe he is the right man for me. But there is so much tension that has been built up. I really don’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to experience it, but the bottom line is, he gave an answer which was probably in a sense correct, but was delivered in a more or less mechanical fashion as opposed to considering the other person as a real person. So the film, basically, traces his growth as a person of faith. Why was it such a significant experience in my life?
In our country, we celebrate Holy Week, and the country shuts down from Wednesday up to Easter Sunday. And even programming, the media at that point in time, will turn to very religious films. And in the films—normally there would be portrayals of the life of Christ of other saints. And the saints seem to have undergone challenges that were no challenges because even from the time that they were, shall we say, born out of their parents, they were already saintly. They were unreachable, they were different from all of us. And The Cardinal showed me a person who had to deal with the realities of his situation, and his own personal growth, as to how to achieve this. Now, perhaps I can use the words of a colleague of mine in governance when he said: Our difficulty is always being able to say that we can, by default, choose the difficult right over the easy wrong. It’s so easy to compromise so many things.
In our country they keep on talking about being practical, as opposed to being idealistic. Basically they talk of people of idealism as being do-gooders who will never amount to anything, who will never be able to produce anything. Sorry this is stream of consciousness that I’m trying to deliver [laughter]. But you know, I was very fortunate to go to this college, to go to that institution where we had programs like immersion, where people of wealth, of status, were able to be brought to communities who had nothing, and experience life on the other side of the spectrum. They showed us the conditions, they asked us to ask ourselves the question whether or not this was right, or this was wrong. They gave us the necessary tools to be able to effect the changes on that which was wrong by doing that which was right. It always told us to measure our actions on the basis of how does it affect the other? The emphasis on your interest having to be subsumed. To take care first and primarily of the interest of the other. Now, we were taught not just that this was the right thing to do on a moral basis, but in the end, even on a practical consideration: it is the right thing to do. The moral imperative does not become an abstract discussion, but rather, on any mode, any filter, any standard that you would want, doing that which is right is the only course that will really redound to attaining any of your respective goals. Now how does that affect the lives that we have had to lead?
My father was partially educated by a Jesuit institution. His generation was the generation that had to be educated after World War II. And after World War II, Manila was the second-most devastated country after Warsaw in Poland. The institutions started opening up, not simultaneously, but one after the other. There was even a time when he went to a high school that was supposed to be, at least prior to the war, exclusively for women. But since that was the only institution open at that point in time, he was allowed to enter.
Now, I saw in his life, I saw in my mother’s life. I have an institution that perhaps, taught me the abstract. I had parents that showed me the reality of what it is to have a principled life and how you are, you will be able—even if you can’t imagine it that you can capacitate yourself to mount these challenges, the only thing that you really had to think was to continue in that belief and let God take care of all those that could not have, could not do.
Now, let me give you an instance. My father was in solitary confinement for most of the seven years and seven months of his incarceration. At that point in time, we’re in a Martial Law regime, all sources of information were controlled by the state. People could not gather for more than three without being charged with illegal assembly. There was a law that was widely abused called the Anti-subversion Law, which was designed to be an anti-communist law but got translated into an—if anybody criticized our dictator then, you were branded as a subversive and then you wound up in jail to be tried by a military tribunal, and the final reviewing authority was Mr. Marcos, himself.
Bottomline was, how do you educate your people? How do you proceed from that education into action when you can’t even talk to your people, when you had no access to your people? My father’s access to the outside community was basically through us—the mother, my siblings, from time to time, some of his siblings would also be there. Anything he wanted to say to everybody else we had to painstakingly reproduce by either photocopying machine or a mimeograph machine. The younger generation probably will not know what a mimeograph machine is. We weren’t talking about bandwidth and the number of pages that we could copy, number of ink cartridges that were available.
Now, and at one point he said—. You know, I was 12 years old when Martial Law was started. At about one point, in exile, I was wondering: why is it that if we are doing that which is right, why are we the ones in exile, why are we the ones with such an uncertain future, why are we the ones who are made to suffer all of these things? And then I look back at his own example, seven years, seven months. My dad is a very social individual. The worst punishment that you could give him is to deprive him access to people.
For 7 years, 7 months, the only persons that he talked to, besides his family, was the guard who was watching over his cell. And one lesson that he told me then was—and I think he was quoting the Bible—if the time is right, not a single prophet is needed. But if the time is not right, a thousand prophets doesn’t make a difference. So he did envision a time where we will—. From a position of Martial Law where we were so oppressed, to the point in time where we would regain democracy. And he had that dream. He lived that dream. He lived it up to the last days of his life.
And at that time since, I marveled, how do you keep the dream when it seems to be such an impossible dream. By the way, that was actually one of his favorite songs from Man of La Mancha, and the lyrics really seem to apply. Well, “to beat the unbeatable foe” and that’s what you’re doing; “to reach the unreachable star” and that seems to be what you’re doing. Again, that is my blessing. I saw in a person, not just the theoretical aspect, but really living that life of really being dedicated to somebody else.
Which brings me to this latter point of my journey. You know when I was in Congress and the Senate, I thought my role primarily was that of fiscalizer: try and stop abuses by those who had more power more senior than I was. When I left the Senate, stenographers were saying that they expected a rather easier time, especially during the budget process, because they seem to think that I had more than seventy percent of the questions propounded during the budget season. They actually said, when I got to the Senate, that was the first time that they ran out of cassettes, amongst other things, and flash drives, to record all of the questions, and even the stenographic paper in which they were making their notes.
When I was being asked to run for the presidency, I said, where is the justice there? I was trying to stop all of these abuses, stop these problems from happening to begin with. Ano now you’re going to ask me to solve all of them? And they were going to be mad at me after a year or two because they were going to say, you haven’t solved all of them. And I’m not a martyr nor a masochist. Why should I willingly get into a situation that was so impossible? And at the end of the day—and my mother had just passed on at that point in time—on the fortieth day after she died, I felt I had to make a decision. And part of the grieving process had to be put aside to answer this question: We have a chance—and this is the fundamental question—we have a chance to make a difference, and a significant difference at that. Do we shirk away from this challenge and give our people no chance? Or take on that challenge and at least give them the possibility of that chance at really changing the situation?
Our newspapers at that point in time were always so full of stories that basically said record numbers of our countrymen were leaving the country. Too many people were voting with their feet and leaving. When I started in office, we had about ten percent of our population outside of the country. And if you look at all of the problems before you—let me give you something simple: First days in office, we inherited a backlog in classrooms of 66,800. The national budget can support 8,000 classrooms per year. Given a six-year term, that’s 48,000 classrooms. If we’re able to do that, I still would have about a 20,000 or so in backlog by the time I leave. How do we actually take care of that? I’m happy to report that we finished that particular backlog in 2013, though various means: budgetary support, donations from the private sector, public-private partnership programs; and we will actually be producing over 180,000 classrooms by the time I step down in office in June. [Applause] Out of the things we managed to accomplish, we did not even dream of doing that, at that point in time.
How do we settle the seemingly intractable problem of poverty in the country? We have a program called the Conditional Cash Transfer Program, and the primary condition is, keep your child in school, you get a government stipend. It’s not a very big stipend. But the bottom line is, roughly from about 790,000 households when we got into office, we are now assisting 4.4 million households in keeping their children in school. And the final target, 4.6 million households, will be accomplished by this year. There is a first cohort—we expanded the program to assist up to the high school level. The first cohort has graduated last year, and it produced about over 300,000 assisted students, 13,000-plus of whom were honor students. The two who spoke actually wound up in the University of the Philippines, in a quota course in engineering. We have graduated something like a million in our technical-vocational work scholarship program. And the placement rate for all of these graduates, went from a low of 28 percent when we started out, to about 71-72 percent currently, which is defined as finding a job six months after graduation from the program. We believe also that the taxes that they pay in the first year of employment will already cover the cost of getting them through that program. So this becomes a self-perpetuating and self-generating endeavor.
Now, I can go on and on with the list of things I keep saying we have done. I have not done all of these things. It is the people who elected me into office; it is the people who provide me with the backbone when I have to challenge all of the vested interests; it is the people who continuously express their support for the things that we are trying to do in reordering and changing our society.
Again, let me emphasize, the education I got from the Ateneo de Manila primarily imbued us with the necessary skills to be a good technocrat. But more importantly, a good technocrat in service of the other; that of being a man or woman for the other.
The difficulty in trying to write this speech was, I had to reflect on 56 years of my life. And I was hoping to be able to do all the main points in ten minutes or less. Right now, I’m beginning to feel my mother at my back saying, “You know, we have other things to do. You might want to move on.” [Laughter] But, honestly, I really have to say—.
I wanted to share with you lyrics from two songs, and wind up with a quote from Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The song is again from the movie, The Cardinal. And if you get to see the film, you will notice that the main theme has no lyrics. But Frank Sinatra, at some point in time, decided that it deserved a lot of lyrics. And in a sense, it encapsulates my own journey as to how to become a better Christian and a better Catholic. And, if I may quote:
“Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
“Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
“Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from the fold,
“Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
“I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
“And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind.
“Though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I’m wrong,
“Though the road buckles under where I walk, walk along.
“Till I find, to my wonder, every task leads to Thee,
“All that I can do is pray, stay with me,
“Stay with me.”
May I wind up with a quote from Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed in a concentration camp in Germany during World War II. He stated: “First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” And I guess that encapsulates what we have been trying to do: There are so many who are disenfranchised, who are powerless, who are in a condition that really can make them so despondent, so cynical, so hopeless. But yet, they strive in their daily lives and if there was one mission that we sought out, those that have joined us in this quest, it is that we have to maximize opportunities for all. And in the end, that is not just a thing to do, that is the right thing to do.
Thank you. Good day.