Our Culture is our Destiny

Alex Lacson
Harvard Kennedy School of Government
GK Global Summit in Boston,  June 12-14, 2009

           In 1994, Lee Kuan Yew, the father and the builder of modern Singapore, was interviewed by Time Magazine. In one portion of the interview, Lee Kuan Yew was asked about the importance of culture.

            Lee Kuan Yew said “culture is destiny”. Your culture is your destiny. Your culture will determine your destiny. Your set of beliefs will determine how far you will go in life. If you believe you are a failure, you will be a failure. If you believe you are great, you will be great. If you want to excel, you must build a culture of excellence. If you want to become great, you must build a culture of greatness.

            Lee Kuan Yew said that this applies not only to an individual person. It also applies to a people. A people’s culture will determine the destiny of that people.

It is in this context that I wish to talk to you briefly about our story as a people.

We were a colony of Spain for 333 years, which ended only in December 1898. For 333 years, the Spaniards in our country did not treat our people kindly. In fact, they treated our people harshly, violently. At the height of its power in our country, there were just around 40,000 Spanish soldiers in our country, controlling and subjugating more than seven million Filipinos. The Spaniards conquered and subjugated our people physically, thru superior weapons. But more importantly, they conquered and subjugated the spirit of our people.

            The Spaniards called our people many bad and demeaning names. They called us Juan Tamad, or lazy Joe, and made us believe that we are a lazy people. Even inside the churches, in the pulpits, some of the Spanish Friars or priests called us – tanga, bobo, at tamad. They ridiculed the Filipino as dumb, dull and stupid. This they did continuously, often with violence, on our people, for 333 years. Until it killed the spirit of many of our people – the spirit to fight, the spirit to aspire, the spirit to excel, the spirit to aim high and dream big.

Napoleon Bonaparte said – the best conquest is the conquest of the mind and the heart.

            To ensure that the almost seven million Filipinos will not be united in a revolution against the 40,000 Spanish soldiers, the Spaniards sowed disunity and division among our people. This they did as a policy. They made Filipino families and clans fight among each other, by sowing intrigues among them. This the Spaniards did also for more than 300 years. As a result, many Filipinos did no trust one another, did not help one another, did not work with one another.

            When the Spaniards left our country in 1898, after it sold our country to the United States, the 2 most serious problems they left the Filipino people were these – first, the Filipino lost his faith in himself, his self-respect and self-confidence. The Filipino had a very low and negative self-image of himself. Second, the Filipino people did not trust one another and could not work with each other.

            The American rule of our country for the next 42 years aggravated these problems. The Japanese occupation of our country from 1941 to 1945 worsened the problems. The Japanese soldiers raped our daughters and sisters and enslaved our men.

We became a free people only in 1946 – that is 63 years ago. If you deduct 14 years of Martial Law from there, we are just 49 years old as a free people.

As you can see, we are still a young nation, a people that is still in search for itself, a nation that is still trying to find its own place under the sun.

            But today, our Philippines is perceived as the most corrupt country in the whole of Asia and the 11th most corrupt in the whole world.

            Today, our country is considered one of the poorest countries in Asia despite the fact that it is the 5th richest in mineral deposits out of 239 countries in the world, notwithstanding the fact that it has one of the richest natural resources in the world, despite the fact that it is the richest in marine life biodiversity in all the world.

            Today, according to a Time Magazine article dated 24 November 2008, almost 10 million of our youth are growing up without a father or a mother by their side because the father or the mother has to find work abroad because our country could not provide the jobs to their fathers and mothers.

            Today, almost 11 million of our youth are classified as out-of-school youth. They are school aged and should be at school, but they are not at school. They are out there in the streets or in the squatters or in the mountains of poverty.

            Today, out of 20 million families in our country, 5 million families are homeless, living in the slums of poverty as squatters.

            Today, the problems created and caused by foreign invaders and rulers of our country still exist in the hearts and minds of many of our people. Today, many of our people still have no faith in the Filipino and consider our Philippines a hopeless country. Many among us still bash the Filipino in front of foreigners and speak negatively about our country. Today, many of our people just think and live only for themselves and their families, but never for the whole Filipino people. A number of our political and government leaders, while in public office, just serve themselves and their families, and not the public interest. Many business people only think much of themselves and their families, but not much of their employees and their employees’ families.

Kanya-kanya at pamilya-pamilya pa rin lang ang marami sa atin. As a people, we still have difficulty attaining national unity in our acts for our country.

            Our culture is our destiny. Our culture as a people will determine our destiny as a nation.

            In 1987, American writer James Fallows called us a people with a damaged culture because, according to him, we do not have a sense of community as a people. We do not care for one another.

            Today, one of the major challenges we face today as a people is this – How do we heal ourselves as a people? How do we repair the damage in our culture that was deeply inflicted in us as a people for almost 400 years? How do we build the greatness of Filipino? How do we make the Filipino truly great and respectable in the eyes of the world?

            Truly, we need to rebuild the greatness of ourselves as a people, and this we can do and we must do piece by piece, block by block, group by group, town by town, city by city – until such time that our archipelago of 7,107 islands truly believe in one fundamental thing – that we Filipinos are one people. And that as one people, we are also just one family.

            At this juncture, allow me to tell you a portion of my story.

            I am a father of four (4) young children, the oldest of whom is 13 years old, while the youngest is just 3. As a parent, I dream of a beautiful country for all my children, one where their dreams are possible to attain, however high they may seem. A society that offers them boundless opportunities and limitless possibilities. One that can and is willing to pay the full value of their talent and hardwork, in the same way that America and Canada are able to pay the full value of the talent and hardwork of their own people. A nation that respects all their rights and liberties, and one that can provide them justice when an act of injustice is committed against anyone of them. A country that will make them truly proud of themselves as Filipino, one that will make the rest of the world respect the name Filipino.

            As a Filipino, like Tito Tony Meloto and Gawad Kalinga, and perhaps like many of you, I also dream of a beautiful Philippines for the Filipino people. I dream of a Philippines that is beautiful in its march to progress, because it seeks prosperity for all and not only for a few, because there is enough for every Filipino and his family, because no Filipino family is left behind in the streets or in slums to suffer in poverty and misery. I dream of a country that is founded on love for one another, one where there is a culture of familihood among our people, because we as a people commit to the noble idea that we are our sister’s and our brother’s keeper. A society where the weakest of our people can also be strong, where the poorest among us can also be wealthy. A nation where law and justice is the rule, where the mighty are just, where the lowly are secure. A society that can meet the lowest needs and the highest expectations of our people. A country where every child is able to study, where every graduate is able to find work, where every parent can feed and give comfort to his children. A country where every Filipino can attain the fullness of life as he or she conceives it to be, one that can bring out the best, the highest, and the most beautiful in our people, so the Filipino may become a model to humanity, so our country may become a light to the darkness in our world.

            On January 20, 1961, President John F Kennedy, in whose name and honor this school of government of Harvard is dedicated, called on the American people in his Inaugural Address – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

            That is the most famous line the world remembers today of John F Kennedy. His call for patriotism, for good citizenship. His call for the Americal people to step up on their love for their country.

            That is also what we are trying to do in our country today. That is also call I make in my book “12 Little Things Filipinos Can Do To Help Our Country”.

            But the biggest call in our country today is the one that Tito Tony Meloto and Gawad Kalinga are making to all Filipinos all over the world. A call to care for the poorest of our poor, a call to build homes for our 5 million homeless families, a call to provide the poorest of our people the opportunity to live among us in society, with dignity and hope.

            Today, GK brings home millions of our people abroad, to help rebuild our country, to help build the greatness of the Filipino. Today, GK stands as the best vehicle that can unite all Filipinos from all over the world. It is the best hope for our 5 million families who are homeless in the very land where God planted them. GK is the best tool that can build the greatness of the Filipino. It is the best vehicle that can bring us to our dream of a beautiful Philippines.

            I believe that there are six (6) core values we should all believe in as a people. These core values could serve as the foundations of the culture of greatness we wish to build for the Filipino.

            First, as a people, we should believe that the Philippines is our Motherland. It is the birthplace of our race. It is the home of the Filipino. The Jewish Americans tell their children that while America is their country, Israel is their motherland. Israel is the home of the Jew. Japanese Americans do the same to their children. The Chinese and the Korean Americans too. We as a people, wherever we maybe in the world, should do the same. We should believe that, for it is the truth. Wherever we maybe in the world, we should tell our children that, so our young may grow up with deep love and affection for our motherland. For truly, Philippines is the country our Creator chose and gave to us as a people.

Second, as a people, we should believe that the Filipino is great for he is a child of a great God who truly wants him to be great. The Filipino is a child of God no less than the American, no less than the French or the Italian, no less than the stars above or any person on earth. God has equipped the Filipino, within him and around him, with all the essentials he needs to succeed in this world. God wants the best, the highest, and the most beautiful for the Filipino because he is God’s child.

         Third, we should believe that as a people we are but one family. That while we have our spouses and children as our small family, the Filipino people is our big family. Therefore, as a people, we should have a culture of familihood, which is higher and greater than brotherhood. As one family of people, we should truly love and respect one another. Dapat wala tayong iwanan. Dapat wala tayong gulangan. Dapat wala tayong dayaan, lokohan, o nakawan. 

Fourth, as people, we should believe that unity is higher and more important than individuality, but without choking anyone’s creativity. If we want the best for the Filipino, unity is essential. For a people achieve great things only if they are united. As JFK said “United, there is little we cannot do; Divided, there is little we can do”.

Fifth, as people, we should believe that the Filipino was born as part of the whole, as part of the answer to the question, as part of the solution to the problem, as part of the hope to our people. As a people, we are born to help build a better world for all humanity, and to help the Filipino become great not only in the eyes of the world but moreso in the eyes of our Lord.

Sixth, as a people, we should aim high and dream big for ourselves. For truly, we will only go as far as our dreams. If we dream small, our achievements will also be small. If we dream big, our achievements will also be big. For truly, we are the architects of our own success. We are the builders of our own greatness. We are the writers of our own story. We are the creators of our own future.

            If the Americans were able to build for themselves a great and a prosperous country, why can’t we Filipinos build for ourselves a beautiful Philippines? If the Japanese and the Singaporeans were able to build for themselves an orderly and a prosperous country, why can’t we Filipinos build for our children and people a beautiful country?

            We – the present generations of Filipinos – we are today the carriers of the flag of our Philippines. We are today the bearers of the name Filipino, the vanguards of the identity Filipino. It is therefore our task to build the Filipino great. It is therefore our duty to build our Motherland, our beloved Philippines, great!

We Filipinos are a beautiful people!

We and our children deserve a beautiful country!

Mabuhay ang Pilipinas! Mabuhay ang Pilipino!

God bless all of you!

This is a short version of the speech of Alexander Lacson at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government during the GK Global Summit in Boston on June 12-14, 2009. Alex Lacson is the author of the book “12 Little Things Filipinos Can Do To Help Our Country”.

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