Required Reading: Vice President Leni Robredo’s Speech on Defiant Hope in 2018 Resonates Strongly Today - LA Lives

Vice President Leni Robredo, who just announced her presidential bid, recalled the spirit of the late President Ramon Magsaysay in her message during the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Presentation Ceremonies three years ago.

[ED NOTE: A day before the filing of candidacy for the 2022 presidential elections closes, Leni Robredo announced her bid for the top position in the land. While she admits that it will be an uphill battle, the vice president says her will is firm. “Buong-buo ang loob ko,” she says during her speech at her office in the Quezon City Reception House. Her speech at the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Awards had the same themes of optimism and fervor, and she will probably call upon this same spirit time and again in the coming months.]

Sixty-one years ago, news broke of a fatal crash on the slopes of Mt. Manunggal in Cebu and immediately, the entire Filipino nation descended into deep mourning. We grieved for the tragic loss of a man who stood for and fought for the common man’s hopes and dreams.

The death of President Ramon Magsaysay marked the end of a hopeful era. His commitment to serve the Filipino people created a beacon of hope at a time when newly born states struggled to rebuild their countries from the rubbles of war and the world was divided along ideological lines. He chose to listen and reach out to the poor when the winds of authoritarian rule were starting to sweep across many nations. He sparked an ethos that brought purpose to a region marred by poverty, inequality and violence.

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Vice President Leni Robredo delivering her speech on "defiant hope" at the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Awards Ceremony
Vice President Leni Robredo delivering her speech on “defiant hope” at the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Awards Ceremony

Today, you and I live in another period of great tumultuous change. As the world breaks through the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, swathes of its population grapple with anger against establishments, institutions, and traditions that they used to cling to for answers. Nations are swept under waves of conflict and killings, and poverty—that old, familiar foe—refuses to be stamped out. This is a time when many feel that darkness has almost eclipsed hope, when violence has become commonplace—even necessary. Many are saying they could hardly recognize what humanity has become.

Where is Asia in this era of transition? Our region is now where economic growth is fastest, where demography is tilting the world, and innovation is happening at breakneck speed. But it is also where conflict is escalating fast—whether on land, on seas, or in the area of trade. Asia is where poverty is most persistent, and freedoms are being challenged in ways that we have not seen in the last few decades.

In this sea of uncertainty, it is critical that we all remain hopeful. But when I say this, I speak of hope that is actively determined to change the future, the way President Magsaysay showed us in the way that he lived. I speak of hope that is not passive, but grounded on a culture of discipline, excellence, and service. I speak of hope that is defiant, not just waiting for things to get better.

This kind of hope begins from knowing and being proud of who we are as a region. Let us never forget that the Asia we know carries a rich legacy of democracy, where men and women throughout time, fight for freedom and independence; where demanding for truth is the norm; and where power resides in the hands of the people.

The Asia we know carries a rich legacy of humanity, where despite the countless threats and attacks against humankind, we remain resilient, ensuring that human lives will not be snuffed out by any tyrant. We have had a long history of bloody struggles in very dark times, and I refuse to believe that we suffered them for nothing.

The Asia we know carries a rich legacy of leadership, where leaders inspire courage rather than fear, bringing out the best in our people rather than fanning the flames of our darkest inclinations. Throughout the course of history, we have had our share of change makers who showed us that it is possible to do things differently and with better results. This legacy has been passed on from one generation to another; and this year’s awardees are proof that there are heroes among us who have shown greatness of spirit and have dared to take the road less traveled.

Vo Thi Hoang Yen, Sonam Wangchuk, Bharat Vatwnai, VP Leni Robredo, RMF Chairman, Senen Bacani, Howard Dee, Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz, Your Chang
Vo Thi Hoang Yen, Sonam Wangchuk, Bharat Vatwnai, VP Leni Robredo, RMF Chairman, Senen Bacani, Howard Dee, Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz, Youk Chhang

This year’s awardees are perfect examples of defiant hope. For instance, the Philippines’ very own Howard Dee co-founded the Assisi Development Foundation which has since touched the lives of 10.5 million Filipinos, established one of the largest and best-performing microfinance institutions in the country, ASA Philippines; initiated a nutrition program called Hapag-Asa that has fed 1.8 million children; crafted a concerted response to life-threatening emergencies in Mindanao in Southern Philippines including Tabang Mindanao, which means Help Mindanao; and took up the cause of indigenous peoples rights through legislative advocacy, scholarships, leadership training, and IP development programs, like the Pamulaan Center for Indigenous People’s Foundation in Mindanao. Many of these initiatives are well-known to the Filipino people, but Howard Dee himself chose to remain behind the scenes even as he was asked by government and civic leaders to lead peace-building and reform initiatives from the 1990s to today. The Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation was right in calling Mr. Dee “quietly heroic” in his half-century service to the Filipino people.

We also have Sonam Wangchuk, who was born in a small, poor village in the cold mountainous region of northern India, who dreamed of reforming the education system in his hometown. Sonam strove to equip young students and others growing up in Ladakh, especially those from rural or disadvantaged backgrounds, with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to carve their own future.

We have Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz who built a place of refuge for the poor, the ill, the homeless, the fatherless, and a place where people of opposing faith and politics could find solace.

We have Vo Thi Hoang Yen, who rose above her struggles and proved to us that disabilities can be turned into abilities. Undaunted, she worked hard to create an environment that refuses to exclude anyone — most of all those who by birth or by circumstance find themselves different from the rest of the world.

We have Bharat Vatwhani who dedicated his life rescuing mentally ill persons living on the streets of India — providing them with food, shelter, and psychiatric treatment, at a time when mental health is stigmatized, ignored, and insufficiently addressed.

We have Youk Chang, who devoted his life to the monumental task of preserving the memory and lessons of the Cambodian genocide — something that is truly lacking in a world dominated by propaganda and false truths.

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Youk Chhang, Jaime Zobel De Ayala, Vice President Leni Robredo, Senen Bacani
Youk Chhang, Jaime Zobel De Ayala, Vice President Leni Robredo, Senen Bacani

For generations, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards has not only been a symbol of prestige, but also a clarion call to inspire people to be heroes of hope.

As one region, now is the time to look deep inside ourselves, and reflect upon these common values that we still hold on to—these beliefs that we cherish and uphold during the most trying and desperate of times.

Asia is home to a multitude of races, languages, cultures, religions, and political systems. Despite our differences, we are bound by one belief: that progress, peace and prosperity should be enjoyed by all people, regardless of race, educational background, religion, or social class. That every human being has the right to dream and lead a comfortable life. The men and women we are honoring today embody an unwavering commitment to this noble cause. This is the great Asian legacy. This is who we are as a people.

Together, let us dream of a region that is grounded on equality, where every man and woman can freely aspire to become who they are [called] to be because society believes in them and empowers them. Let us dream of a region that is grounded on a sense of community, where nations co-exist with mutual respect and camaraderie. Let us dream of a region where human life is preserved and protected by the very institutions that have been tasked to uphold it. Let us dream of a region that is grounded on defiant hope, where we see the world both as it is and as it could be.

We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to reiterate these audacious dreams, as we stand on the shoulders of these Asian giants.

To our dear awardees: your grit and determination have shown us, that in a world marred by anger and division, hope is still the greatest weapon. That real heroes like you derive strength, not from fear and intimidation, but from compassion. You are the ultimate proof that quiet bravery is the most potent kind of strength, and that empathy belies a deeper kind of power, not weakness.

Quiet courage and empathy, and leaders that put in the hard work of actually transforming the lives of people, are rarities in these times, when dictatorship is claimed by some to be better. When those trusted by the electorate threaten lives instead of protect them, divide the nation instead of unite it, attack people’s cherished beliefs instead of nourishing them, and present themselves only through bravado and empty promises as the antidote to what they say are outdated and decaying ideas like democracy, we don’t move towards a better future. We move towards a scorched-earth existence where people are killed, institutions are decimated, and our very way of life is threatened.

Quiet, courageous, and hardworking heroes are our last line of defense for humanity to avoid such a future. Our Ramon Magsaysay Awardees provide inspiration on how we may all be defiantly hopeful. I pray that each of us may find the strength to continue to stand up to those who wish to oppress and curtail our liberties.

This is the time to fight for those who cannot defend themselves. The message for all of us is clear: Each one of us is called to turn our gaze to the last, the least and the lost. For, as an unnamed Filipino political prisoner once wrote, “Peaceful shores are only for those who are brave enough to face the raging waves during storms.”

May we all reach our peaceful shores.

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