The Opening International Conference on Jose Rizal and the Asian Renaissance, PWTC Kuala Lumpur, 2 October 1995
Some time in December last year, when I was told by President Ramos in Manila of the Rizal Centennial celebrations, I then mooted the idea of holding a Rizal Conference in Kuala Lumpur as a prelude to the main celebrations. Today, thanks to the commitment of the President, the idea has now turned into reality. My personal thanks also to my colleague Joe Almonte for assisting in the preparations of this conference.
The fact that this conference on Jose Rizal is being held in Kuala Lumpur is testimony to the vast appeal of this man beyond the shores of his homeland. Certainly for us in Malaysia Jose Rizal is not merely a national hero of the Philippines. He was not only the first Malayan but also the first Asian to set the standards in the struggle to restore human dignity and self-respect to subjugated peoples the world over. With sustained intellectual vigour, he fought against the colonial masters of the day: a feat of immense courage and profound self-sacrifice which evoked the admiration of all those who later became conscious of their own indolence and humiliation under the yoke of colonialism. It has taken almost 100 years for us to give him due pride of place in the annals of Asian history by reinterpreting the true significance of the contributions of Rizal. It is indeed a tragedy that one of the greatest sons of Asia is also one of her least known outside his own native land.
For us in the region, Jose Rizal was more than just a symbol of the fight against imperialism and oppression. He was the precursor to the great movement of the region, a phenomenon which we see now as the Asian Renaissance. He brought with him a burning idealism which we very much hope to see being rekindled today. In his approach to life itself, here was a man whose quest for excellence and perfection in all his pursuits is truly inspiring. The entire story of his life, however, pales before the fortitude and serenity with which he faced death. In that single poem which he wrote in the final hours of his life, Mi Ultimo Adios, is the expression of the nobility of his spirit, the true love for his fellow men and human dignity as well as his sublime and sincere faith in God.
The conference is most timely because we are presently engaged in the discourse on the Asian Renaissance which is a subject that transcends the traditional compartments of economic, social or political issues and encompasses more significantly the cultural context, taking us as it were into the realm of ideas. And this is essentially what Rizal stood for, a multi-dimensional approach to the problems of mankind.
Perhaps even more significant and relevant in the context of the world today is that Jose Rizal cannot be easily compartmentalized into either a symbol, representative of Asia, or, as some critics would have it, a mere Europhile. For Rizal drank deeply from the culture of the West. Having mastered the major languages of Europe, including its classical heritage of Greek and Latin, he became fully immersed in European science, culture and intellectual tradition. At the same time, he never lost touch with his Asian roots, having also mastered his own mother tongue, Tagalog, and other Eastern languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Malay. Rizal was thus the product, perhaps the very first, of the synthesis between the civilizations of the East and the West. In his person, he embodied the ideals of both. Thus, in this regard, he was a true homo universalis in more ways than the term suggested in the context of the European Renaissance.
True to the spirit of Rizal, for as he used to say "In my blood runs the wanderlust of the Malays," so must he be commemorated in other parts of the world, be it in Kuala Lumpur, London or Madrid. This is not a mere exercise in adulation, but a genuine effort to understand and appreciate his contributions, sacrifices and martyrdom, and to draw from them inspiration in our quest for a new awakening of Asia.
As testimony to our commitment to this enterprise, we will continue to lend our support to the centennial celebrations. To begin with, all major works of Jose Rizal including Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo will be translated into Bahasa Malaysia and published by next year. It is hoped that this will pave the way for greater interest and understanding of Rizal and his ideas in this country.