THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON THE PHILIPPINE REVOLUTION AND BEYOND, Mnila, 23 August 1996
The Philippine revolution, whose centenary we celebrate, has a significance far beyond the shores of these islands. It was the first revolution of its kind in Asia, opening the floodgates of liberation against Western imperialism, proclaiming the birth of the Asian Renaissance. But more than merely freeing ourselves from physical bondage, it was supposed to release us also from the chains of mental captivity. In the words of Jose Rizal, "We must win our freedom by deserving it, by improving the mind and enhancing the dignity of the individual, loving what is just, what is good, what is great, to the point of dying for it. When a people reach these heights ... the idols and tyrants fall like a house of cards and freedom shines in the first dawn."
The fathers of the revolution, the Katipuneros, were fully conscious of the contagious character of their uprising, "having within its womb the seeds of a disease that is mortal to their colonial interests -- a dam to their overflowing ambitions, in the not far away future." Their intellectual luminary, Apolinario Mabini, declared that the final aim of the struggle was "to maintain alive and resplendent the torch of liberty and civilization in Oceania, to illuminate the gloomy night in which the vilified and degraded Malay race finds itself, in order that it may be led to the road of social emancipation."
Their programme for political emancipation was not only for their own patria, but for the rest of Asia. Their articulation of the idealistic foundations of an independent nation, namely the notion of liberty, human dignity and moral uprightness was unprecedented. These ideals of the Malayan revolutionaries remain relevant even to us today and they resonate as powerfully as ever. Their realization is a never ending struggle; for even as independent nations Asians continue to suffer from intellectual dispossession and the onslaught of economic domination. Thus we commemorate this revolution as a celebration of awareness of its ideals. Our founding fathers did not fight a foreign oppressive power merely to have it replaced by a new form of tyranny, indigenous or otherwise. The only justification for national self-government is the restoration of the dignity of the people. And this dignity will continue to elude us as long as abject poverty, rampant corruption, oligarchs and encomienderos remain stark realities of our society. These evils will not be defeated until we liberate ourselves from the chains of mental incarceration. Only upon such release can we recover our own virtues and we would be, in the words of Rizal, "once more free, like the bird that leaves the cage, like the flower that opens to the air."
A decade ago the people of the Philippines revived the spirit of the Katipuneros, declaring that they would not allow themselves to be trampled upon. Our Asian tolerance should not be miscontrued as meekness. We are not blocks, not stones, not senseless things. There are those who believe that the dignity of the human person can be sacrificed at the alter of a "god" called Society, thus justifying oppression and excesses in their various guises. But abuse of office, corruption, nepotism and cronyism are only symptoms of a virulent disease. Invariably this disease, this malignant cancer, will take its toll on the people and inflict such pain, agony and ruin that even if they do free themselves from such a yoke in the end, it may take generations for them to become whole again.
Mabini in his "True Decalogue" conceived the architecture of the civil society as a blueprint for societal regeneration. The struggle to realize this remains the imperative of our time, its fulfillment being a pre-requisite for humane governance. It is essential that power be vested in a democratically constituted authority rather than in the hands of the individual. Power personalized is power plundered from the people. Democracy is not a luxury that Asians cannot afford, as some would have us be lieve. On the contrary, it is a basic necessity for responsible and ethical governance. The fact that democracy is often abused, leading to chaos and paralysis, does not mean that dictatorship is the answer. Rather, the solution lies in purging democracy of its excesses, such as unbridled individualism at the expense of the rights and the legitimate interests of the majority. Thus democracy must be revitalized by infusing it with ethical principles and moral uprightness. Unless our society nurtures these ideals, the practice of democracy will degenerate into pandering to the whims and fancies of the mob. We must therefore reacquaint ourselves with the Asian civilizational ideals and intellectual legacies. As the Tagalong proverb goes, Ang hindi marunong lumigon sa pinanggalingan, ay hindi nakakarating sa paroroonan -- He who does not know where he came from will never reach his desti nation. This cultural and intellectual rediscovery will prevent us from imitating the West blindly even as it leads us into a morass -- social, economic or political.
The Asian way is to reach consensus on national goals within a democratic framework, to take the middle path, the Confucian Chun Yung or the Islamic awsatuha, to exercise tolerance and sensitivity towards others. This spirit of consensual musyawarah is very much at play as we progress towards a cohesive regional community. Of course there are potential flash points. However, the common bond of shared values has put us on a steady course and we stay focussed on our common interest of ensuring a better life for the people. In Southeast Asia, this spirit has enabled us to overcome irritants and artificial barriers imposed upon us by erstwhile colonial masters.
We in Asia must reach into our past and remain true to the ideals of the Revolution if we are to construct a lasting legacy for the future generations. Our labours have resulted in the creation of a region that is multicultural yet peaceful, stable yet vibrant. We must now progress to the next stage of the revolution: the economic empowerment of our people, which begins with a definite economic agenda for societal development. The so-called East Asian economic miracle cannot disguise the fact that a majority of our people continue to live a hand-to-mouth existence. Opportunity must be available to all, not appropriated by a select few. The inequities in the distribution of wealth must be redressed; it is incumbent that we institute affirmative action, grounded on the principle of al-adl wal ihsan -- equilibrium and goodness -- to ensure distributive justice among all citizens. Under no circumtances should any group or community be marginalized on account of their ethnicity or religious persuasion. The root cause of most political and military conflicts is more often than not economic rather than ideological. Often, communal and religious passions are aroused merely as the expedient to achieve what are essentially economic goals, to redress perceived imbalances and to gain the upper hand in the contest for markets and resources. It is therefore crucial that we in the region see our selves as inheritors of a common homeland -- one that has been handed down to us to share and to develop together in peace and harmony, and to bequeath as the proud patrimony of coming genera tions. In this regard, we must ensure that economic growth does not derail the process of human development; growth must be balanced with equity. Environmental degradation and erosion of the quality of life should not be the price that society has to pay for progress.
Let us be clear, too, that the message of the Asian Renaissance should be heeded not just by the people of this region, but also by our erstwhile colonial masters. It is not enough that they merely express regret and remorse over the treatment meted out to those they once lorded over. Contrition is but the first step towards owning up to past sins. It lacks conviction when old prejudices against the indios persist. When they hector us on issues such as human rights, patronise us on the matter of val ues, impose conditionalities on trade, we cannot help but suspect a hidden agenda -- a new form of domination in place of the old. These actions are tantamount to an attempt to frustrate our efforts to build a just and equitable society. The true test, therefore, of their sincerity is whether they would continue to treat us as mere pawns to be manoeuvred according to their dubious designs, or join us as equal partners in actualising a new moral vision for the world.
For us in the region there should be no room for mutual suspicion. We subscribe to the idea that nations in the region ought to treat each other as members of an extended family. There should not be two Southeast Asias, one rich and the other poor. The richer nations must feel the pain and misery of their poor brothers. It is our collective moral duty to wage a jihad, a holy war, against poverty and destitution in the region. This will require a radical paradigm shift. The old mindset, one which sees nations, even neighbours, as rivals, must give way to one which promotes cooperation and mutual support.
Only with economic empowerment, and overall prosperity throughout the region, could we legitimately expect the emergence of a civil society, where there would be a reflowering of culture and the flourishing of the arts and sciences which constitute the Asian Renaissance. This will not happen when vast numbers of the population continue to live in poverty and destitution. Societies suffering from such ills demand social engineering to harness the latent energies of the people for productive and creative use. As conceived by Rizal and expounded by Mabini, the sine qua non for the establishment of a civil society and humane governance is freedom, moral responsibility and the safeguarding of fundamental liberties. A passion for knowledge should be aroused and a vibrant intellectual tradition cultivated. Tolerance, understanding and mutual respect will teach us to appreciate the mosaic of our multiculturality and to perceive it as a positive and integrating force. We must therefore continously pursue inter-faith dialogue, intercultural engagement and productive cooperation. These are the building blocks of a regional ecumenical community, ummatan wahidatan, a community with the ability to transcend racial, cultural and confessional differences. The immense diversity of the region will not become a cause of dissension; rather it will be the life blood from which our ecumenical community draws its sustenance.
Rizal's final words were: Consummatum est. For us, the journey has only just begun.