The parallel worlds of Ramon Magsaysay awardees

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By Pola Esguerra del Monte

This story began with death — the death, 58 years ago, of the President whom the Filipino people fondly called “The Guy.” Swept into power in a time of insurgency, corruption, and lawlessness (and US meddling), Ramon Magsaysay marked his inauguration on Rizal Day, 1953, with a bold fashion statement, the barong Tagalog, and with the bold gesture of opening the gates of Malacañang to the people, with whom he feasted and celebrated a country’s new dawn. This rapport continued from his past stint as defense secretary when he helped restore public confidence in government. And there was much anticipation of greatness about his presidency, as occupied by a Guy who was a decade younger than most of his predecessors (except for Emilio Aguinaldo) who were in their fifties when they assumed that office. But any such potential was tragically cut short by an eerier dawn four years later in the mountains of Cebu province: an inspiring leadership that was really just taking off had slipped away from the helm of the young postwar republic to a dreadful plane crash. The date was March 17, 1957. Two weeks later the country was in mourning, as the biggest funeral procession in Philippine history (until that point) passed Manila’s then-dazzling downtown area. By this moment, as Nick Joaquin would write later, the death of The Guy marked, “not his end but a transfiguration — from folk hero to folk myth.”

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That folk myth has since been institutionalized and continues to bear succeeding transfigurations. It is this country, then this region, then the world that continues to be reshaped, according to the vision of not a few people who have been recognized as stewards of the Magsaysay legacy of public service.

And so it goes that Ramon Magsaysay was resurrected in the form of an institution organized in his honor and rendering due tribute on The Guy’s birth anniversary of Aug. 31. The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, says it website, “was created in 1957, the year the Philippines lost in a plane crash a President who was well-loved for his simplicity and humility, his passion for justice, particularly for the poor, and his advancement of human dignity.” The first Ramon Magsaysay Awards were given out the next year, and since then, the award has become “Asia’s premier prize and highest honor,” conferred on “persons — regardless of race, nationality, creed or gender — who address issues of human development in Asia with courage and creativity….”

Until 2008, the awards were conferred according to the following six categories: government service; public service; community leadership; peace and international understanding; emergent leadership; and journalism, literature, and creative communication arts. Today, these categories are no longer deemed “pre-defined,” as it were. Nevertheless, in the awarding ceremony at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last Monday, Aug. 31, the five people honored represented five distinct vocations or advocacies.

Sanjiv Chaturvedi, an Indian government employee who was conferred his Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership, is a whistleblower. At 40, he has exposed — this is quite a long list — the illegal construction of a canal that threatened a wildlife sanctuary, use of public funds for a herbal park on private land owned by a high official, underpayment of license fees, the rigging of government auctions, a “ghost plantation” in a foreign-funded afforestation program, procurement irregularities, contracts awarded to favored service providers, kickbacks in building constructions, a scam in which government employees collected pensions of dead pensioners, and the collusion between government officers and suppliers of fake medicines. Such track record here would be enough to pique the curiosity of the Philippines’ extrajudicial-killings sector which, unfortunately, is still a thriving industry after all this time.

“When I see corruption, the wrongful deprivation from people of resources, where somebody is trying to enrich himself with the cash of the public, it creates a sort of unrest in me,” Mr. Chaturvedi told reporters here last week. He promises to continue exposing corruption, “even if you have to lay down your life in force of your duty.”

His journey, like any hero’s journey, had been complicated by doubts. But dedication and passion are not the only requirements to expose crime — one must also be intelligent. After all, the people he’s exposing are his own bosses, who have a direct hand on his career. “You have to study the pluses and minuses of the system and you have to work accordingly so that you can really bring about the change in the system,” Mr. Chaturvedi said. An ideal system for him would be made up of people and government, and not just dominated by politicians. He acknowledges that today’s social media tools empower people to become more engaged in public issues.

“This is the start of vindication,” he said. “These [recognitions] encourage you to move forward.”

Anshu Gupta, whose fight against poverty involves distributing secondhand cloths to poor communities, does not look at his work as charity. His movement, Goonj, works in 21 of India’s 29 states, redistributes contributed items and processes cloths according to the needs of recipient groups. He has come to realize that personal clothing has a large bearing on a person’s human dignity: one, for example, may skip a meal and still be able to face a crowd, but one cannot face a crowd without any clothes on. Meanwhile, unused fabrics, scraps, and loose threads are put together to make rugs, blankets, mattresses, and sanitary pads. Goonj handles more than 1 million kilograms of materials annually and this makes an impact on millions of lives.

Charity, which sometimes takes the form of passing down necessities like clothes to people who are less privileged, has been criticized as promoting a sense of entitlement on the part of the giver. Mr. Gupta diminishes that idea further, saying people do not “donate” secondhand clothes — they “discard.”

“One very important part, if we really want to do something good, we have to come out of this mundane, useless [idea] of donor and beneficiary,” he said. “There is nothing like a donor, there is nothing like a beneficiary especially with secondhand cloth.”

He believes that those who discard must even be thankful to the recipients who give new meaning to objects that have lost their value. He calls this “the genesis of a parallel economy,” and he hopes this concept inspires similar movements in other places. They would like to grow as an idea from which other systems can be created. The problems of poverty after all, are similar in different countries across the world, so likewise, the solution must be the same.

“The idea is respecting the dignity of people,” Mr. Gupta said. “Let us not make people victims of charity.”

Kommaly Chanthavong leads a silk weaving collective in Laos. In the countryside, where men go out to work and housewives stay behind to finish their chores, the craft helps them earn a living and contribute to the household. An intricate piece of scarf that can take as long as three months to make can be sold at US$1,000 and more.

“Our goal is to strengthen the position of women by giving them a dependable income and thus improve the chances of their children,” Ms. Chanthavong said. Money earned goes to expenses for utilities as well as sending the children to school.

At the same time, the women sustain a traditional art — otherwise lost in other countries fast becoming more globalized. In Laos, city-dwellers who earn good wages are the ones who purchase the silk products, even with a higher price tag that comes with those products after these are transported from the rural areas.

“The government sees the importance [of] women [using] a skill to revive weaving in Laos,” Ms. Chanthavong said. “They want to carry on.”

“Anybody can dance. [In dance], there is no social stratification,” said Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, who is credited for the study, conservation, practice, and promotion of the dance style pangalay, a pre-Islamic dance tradition among the Samal, Badjao, Jama Mapun, and Tausug peoples of the provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Anyone can dance the pangalay — except there are different stances for men and women. Her dancers come from across generations — from the teens to seventies — and actually come in different shapes and sizes.

Through dance, the culture of a people is preserved and manifested. “Dance is a living artifact. An intangible culture until your body moves….Once you dance it, that intangible philosophy, the worldview, comes to life,” Ms. Amilbangsa said.

In a society where performing artists sometimes still struggle to find an audience, or even just encouragement from their families, Ms. Amilbangsa looks at dance as something that should not be regarded as alien from other Filipino sensibilities.

“We have a faddist thinking,” she lamented, as she observes how people are engrossed with new things instead of focusing on a national identity. “That’s why we don’t have a national consciousness. We were colonized several times over, but we can [revive] history if we make use of these ancient art forms as a national symbol. This is all we can place beside [the art forms of] our neighbors in Asia.”

In July this year, a new law was adopted in Myanmar. Women are being required to register their intent to marry, especially if this transition concerned a partner with a different faith. Based on this legislation, the government will have the power to interfere in a planned wedding between a Buddhist woman and a non-Buddhist man. This development adds controversy to a country whose international reputation is complicated by the persecution of the Rohingya. And as it turns out, there are prejudices too involving another, more unavoidable transition, which is death.

Kyaw Thu, a famous actor and director, has defied the norm on religion through his Free Funeral Service Society — providing funeral services, regardless of the faith of the deceased. In a predominantly Buddhist society, proper, decent funeral rites often cost dearly. Moreover, state welfare assistance is quite lacking, and there are taboos on handling the dead. Mr. Thu’s Society, which operates through donations and volunteers, has so far undertaken over 150,000 funerals since its organization in 2001.

Born to a wealthy family, Kyaw Thu began this social enterprise partly on a question of faith by his own children — who had asked a Buddhist monk where actors go when they die. The response: “Because the actors make the people angry, happy, or sorry, or greed[y], always misdeeds, they will go to hell.”

This prompted the actor to read up on Buddhist literature and he discovered a new world, as he stepped down the pedestal of movie fame to reach out to those — literally — six feet under. “As an actor, I used to crave publicity, and chased after money and fame; now I want nothing else but to help those in need,” he said. Service and fame are two different worlds. “If you compare the two satisfactions, it’s like heaven and earth.”

At the top-floor boardroom of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, portraits of Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, Washington SyCip, Randy David, and other former board chairmen are mounted on the wall — perpetually wide-open eyes watching over Manila through a floor-to-ceiling window. It’s almost a poetic evocation of how these luminaries have kept their eyes on the Asian landscape for the past 58 years — a dramatic and diverse scene that has inspired great journalism, literature, and cinema, and countless manifestos against imperialism and globalization.

Asked whether the Magsaysay Award, being a product of the post-colonial era, still finds relevance today, Carmencita T. Abella, the foundation’s current president, said that question would best be answered by the very roster of awardees.

“Take what a Mother Teresa would do to reach a large number of people before,” she said. “That number, in proportion to today’s population, is much smaller. The problems are more complex.”

In the course of our discussion on this institution, many interesting details emerge. From 1958 until 2015, there have been 291 awardees, of whom only 68 are women. And the country most represented in the roster of awardees is India, followed by the Philippines.

A crucial factor behind the selection of awardees is, of course, the composition of the board, which represents “different perspectives” — businessmen, academics, NGOs, to name some.

The medallion
The medallion

Businessmen, according to Ms. Abella, appreciate the economic context wherein individuals try to change the society. The focus is more on the strategy: how certain aims are achieved. And which markets are addressed, e.g., consumer needs. Academics, on the other hand, are data-driven: how many people does this candidate deal with, what monitoring does he do, how does his theoretical framework all hang together? NGOs, meanwhile, have a very strong process perspective. They ask questions like, is this an inclusive strategy, a sustainable strategy, does it link to other efforts?

“We’re not only awarding do-gooders. We’re awarding successful do-gooders,” Ms. Abella said. Because the mere do-gooder as defined by is “a well-intentioned but naive and often ineffectual social or political reformer.”

“Of course, what brings the diverse board together is a shared set of values. You look at Mr. SyCip, Mr. Zobel, they are business persons, but they have a very strong social conscience — strong humanitarian values,” Ms. Abella said. The recognition gives a chance to awardees to influence government policies. “Now, the impact is greater because today’s ease of communication gives people a chance to support movements more quickly,” she said.

Historian and professor Michael Charleston Chua has been a regular attendee of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards since he was 14, having missed only one because of a field trip during college. This year is his 17th attendance. His foray into the ceremonies was prompted by an essay-writing contest that he won, wherein he composed a piece about Ramon Magsaysay and his impact on the youth.

He believes the Magsaysay legacy remains relevant even if The Guy’s mass appeal may now be lost to today’s millennials.

“Remember that the Ramon Magsaysay Award is distinct because it’s Asian. It promotes heroism of not just great people but of ordinary people who are helping other people make their lives better,” Mr. Chua said.

Being labeled Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize also helps the Ramon Magsaysay Award elevate its status.

But Mr. Chua does not discredit the awards’ origins as being partly traceable to America’s promotion of an “anti-communist, American-style democracy,” because President Magsaysay was “pegged as the champion of democracy in Asia” — because he was able to stop the Hukbalahap rebellion, which was quite a menace in the 1950s, with Luis Taruc’s surrender. Thus, Mr. Chua believes, immediately after Magsaysay’s death, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund established the award to espouse the anti-communist, American-style democracy model of Magsaysay.

Yet, after the Cold War, the context has changed. The foundation honored Asian heroes and today stands as a “very positive award-giving body that genuinely recognizes these heroes.”

In that way, the award is also a source of pride for the country. “First of all, it is the Philippines awarding what is considered the highest prize in Asia. Nothing can match this in Asia. It’s a big deal,” Mr. Chua said. “In the context of 1957, when we were number two in Asia, next to Japan, we had the credibility. That credibility remains despite the fact that in many ways, the country has declined. And today, it remains a beacon of hope and an encouragement to genuinely help people have better lives and have a better understanding of the world.”

For the board of trustees there is no singular definition of a Ramon Magsaysay awardee. For the rest of the people, there is only one Ramon Magsaysay, who lives in memory.

“He’s the yardstick of good governance and sincerity in public service,” Mr. Chua said. “The award is a fitting tribute to a nation that brought out this timeless significance, whose impact reaches different sectors in the Philippines and Asia.” For the 291 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, there are 291 versions of an ideal world.

Collectively, they create a parallel universe of ideals, each planet unique with its own system. They are, copping a line from Paz Marquez Benitez, under the singular light of the President’s dead star, “long extinguished, yet seemingly still in [its] appointed [place] in the heavens.” Back on earth, people can only raise their heads towards the sky.