Inang Bayan ay Naghihintay

Speech delivered by Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson                                      

Commencement Exercises, School of Humanities and  School of Social Sciences,  Ateneo de Manila University, High School Covered Courts, March 24, 2012


The Chair and Members of the Board of Trustees, President and Rev. Fr. Jose Villarin,  the Loyola Schools Vice Presidents, the Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Fr. Joey Cruz, Dean of the School of Humanities, Dr. Ma. Luz Vilches represented by Fr. Adolfo Dacanay, faculty members of the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences, honored guests and  parents, and last but not least, the end-all and be–all of this afternoon’s  exercises, the graduates of 2012.

Forty seven years ago, on a similar hot and humid March afternoon, I received my AB Humanities degree diploma in these same covered courts.  Then I was, to quote my philosophy  teacher Fr. RoqueFerriols, “young and full of hope.”  Now almost half a century later, I am standing before you, again to quote the one and only Fr. Ferriols, “old and full of shit.”  But I guess there’s virtue in that too, because you have invited me here this afternoon to talk to the Ateneo batch of 2012,  who I think are presently perspiring under their togas but are bravely trying to look “young and full of hope” anyway.

To prepare for this afternoon, theLoyola Schools administration very kindly organized a meeting between me and about 12 of the graduating  students from  the Humanities and Social Sciences.  In that meeting  the students clearly  articulated their  concerns, which  revolved around three main topics.  First was the education they had received at the Ateneo, which they definitely valued but also questioned at the same time. They asked :  Did our education address the right questions?  Is it relevant to our society? Did it give us enough knowledge about our people and our country?  Second was the problem of class.  The students wondered:   We are the bourgeoisie, we are not the masses.  How can we relate to or serve the masses?  Are we just paying lip service to the masses when we talk about social responsibility? If we end up in the corporate world, will there be a conflict between corporate life and social responsibility?  The third was the question of the Catholic religion, which many felt had to go beyond Nazareno processions, dogmas and rituals to become more meaningful to Filipino society today.  Many were concerned about the effect of religion on the masses, the conflict between religion and philosophy and the association of the Church with oppressive structures in our society.

At the outset, please allow me to skip the topic of religion. Although I have strong opinions about it, I would rather entrust the topic to theologians like Fr. Catalino Arevalo.  By the way, in the face of the fire and brimstone he has been receiving from an  honorable senator, I want to reaffirm my respect for Father Arevalo, whom I have  admired since I was a freshman  in San Jose Seminary in the late 1950s.

Allow me then to structure my talk this afternoon around the first two topics raised by the students --  education and class.   I do not propose  to address these questions directly, because only you yourselves, the graduates, can answer them when you go out into the world and  finally confront specific problems  in your professions.  All I can do today is answer these questions tangentially, by sharing  with you the lessons  I myself learned from my own struggles to define myself as a person, a professional and a Filipino in almost seven decades of my life.

My  education under the Jesuits , four  years in San Jose Seminary from 1957 to 1961 and four  years in the Ateneo from 1961 to 1965, taught me many valuable lessons,  but the following proved  to be most useful in my engagement with Philippine realities.  First, keep your sense of philosophical wonder. It enables you to look at the world with fresh eyes everyday and joyfully discern the meanings of that world.  Imbibed  from philosophy and literature  courses, this sense of wonder helps the pure of heart :  a) to understand why things  might be the way they are;  b) to be critical of things as they are;  and c) to imagine other worlds  beyond the here and now.

It was this sense of wonder that helped me to understand that I must always be true to my ideals but must be judicious about embracing  the ideologies that promise a way to achieve those ideals.  Ideals are based on concepts or essences like truth, love, equality, freedom, all of which have to be incarnated under concrete conditions in a specific place and time.  Ideologies claim to provide us with the most  efficient and fastest way to get to those ideals.  Ideals are “as constant as the northern star,” our points in the compass for our journey through life.  Ideologies represent differing interpretations of man’s relationship to his concrete conditions and the many  routes to get from those conditions to one’s  ideals.

My education at San Jose and the Ateneo had instilled in me the ideal of a society where equality and justice reign.  I took that ideal very seriously and felt initially that the ideology of Catholicism  would offer me the best way to achieve this  ideal.  But I learned soon enough that most  Church leaders were  too associated  with the ruling class to really work for the empowerment of the poor.  I valued the brave efforts of nuns like Sr. Christine Tan and priests like Bishop  Julio Labayen whose concern for social justice was sincere and sustained.  But they were clearly a minority struggling against a  powerful hierarchy that did not seem to be any different from the Spanish friars of old, except for their brown skin and small  noses.  And so I was happy to discover another ideology – the radical left ideology which seemed to me then to offer the most scientific analysis of Philippine society and the only viable strategy for changing the systemic  injustice in our country.  I threw myself headlong into the cultural activities of the movement, organizing  activists and cultural workers into militant groups and staging demos against  the Marcos dictatorship. Until one day I realized that many of the leaders of that movement were not really “serving the people” but merely consolidating their power --  a) by boycotting both the snap elections which was the golden opportunity to unseat  the dictator  and the People Power itself  that finally toppled the dictator , and b) by eliminating  former comrades who were suspected of being  military spies or had ideological  differences with  the leadership.  When I was in that ideology, I confused my ideals, and truth itself, with the ideology and thought myself out of ideology.  But that pre-Socratic sense of wonder kept my head above water and soon I understood that this movement was not the way to achieve my ideals -- a society ruled by equality and justice.  This ideology had fallen prey to power play, thus negating  its own ideals.  Since then, I have  broken free of that ideology but have nevertheless remained true to my ideals, pursuing them in my stint  at the CCP, in my other administrative  positions  in government and,  most of all, in my lifetime work as  a professor in the University of the Philippines.

But even as I treasured that sense of philosophical wonder, I remembered another important lesson I learned from my Jesuit education : when the time is ripe, take a stand for what is right.  Back in the seminary and in the Ateneo, my Jesuit mentors always spoke glowingly of Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor who refused to recognize Henry VIII’s adulterous marriages and was very promptly beheaded.  More’s  reason for his refusal:  although he was the King’s servant,  he was God’s servant  first. (By the way, siya po iyong may rebultong nakatayo sa likod ng  dating  Rizal Library. Siya ang patron saint ng Ateneo College of Law na nasa Padre  Faura noon at nilipat siya dito nang isara ang Faura campus)  One Jesuit professor once said that there will come a time in our lives when we may be called upon  to stand up and be counted, no matter what the consequences.  I thought then that that such a dramatic thing would never happen to me but it did, albeit on a much smaller scale and, thank god, only with a symbolic beheading. 

In  2001, I was appointed Chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board or MTRCB by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, upon the recommendation of Jaime Cardinal Sin (Requiescat in Pace) who apparently endorsed me because he was told I was an ex-seminarian.  As such, I suppose I was expected to do the bidding of the Church on the matter of bomba films which had proliferated and worsened  in the late 1990s.  Barely a month after I assumed office (an office I did not seek), Regal Films exhibited Joey Reyes’ Live show, a film about live sex workers which was graphic but not pornographic. Far from being sexually titillating, it was a depressing movie because it showed how poverty dehumanizes these sex workers.  The film had been approved without cuts by Chairman Armida Siguion Reyna’s Board the previous year and was rated R18 by the MTRCB and even the CINEMA group of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines or CBCP.  But ultra- conservative  elements of different religious denominations under the banner of God’s People’s Coalition for Righteousness  bombarded Malacanang with  protests  against the film.  The Cardinal called me to Villa San Miguel  and ordered  me to  ban the film.  When I said it would be illegal to do so, he said I had no backbone, he had thought I was a good  person because I was an ex-seminarian, and so  he asked me to resign  -- no less than five times.  Days after, the President herself ordered me to pull out the film -- obviously to appease the Church to which she believed she partly owed her ascension  to power. I realized then that I could no longer work under an executive who decided issues on the basis not of principle but of political expediency.  So I decided to resign and to denounce the officials of church and state responsible for breaching the constitutional provisions on freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. 
I am fully aware that there would be at least three sides to this issue and I do not claim to have a monopoly on the truth. Cardinal Sin I suppose was just doing his job as a religious official.  I was just trying to do my job as a government official.  And GMA was just trying to do her job as, well, the perennial politician.  But I just want to say that this was the time in my life when I felt that  all I had been fighting for (freedom of expression,  social justice, professionalism) was at stake, and if I did not make a stand for the film, I would be going back on all of my beliefs ---- and my life’s work.  My resignation unleashed   a controversy in the media that raged for a month or so, but I think the point had been driven home:  Officials of government and religion have no right to suppress artistic expression which is legitimate and responsible.  I do not know if you, dear graduates,   will ever be put in a similar situation in your career but if you are, remember that in a country where everything seems so negotiable, whistleblowers are a rare and welcome lot.

The concern that the burgis may encounter obstacles because of their class in wanting to serve the country is a valid one.  For one, the burgis have enough resources to leave the country and live a comfortable life abroad.  For another, burgis education may in fact have shielded them from  these realities or given them  a perception of these realities which are bourgeois in perspective.   Finally, the corporate world, which works on the principles of capitalism, tends to be wary of, if not hostile towards,  the working class,  because these are the very  people they employ and need to control.  There are indeed basic contradictions between the classes, so that the concept of social responsibility taught  in an upper class school can lead to many questions, or even confusion.

But I believe the burgis can be a productive  force in a changing society.  Given that an outright and radical revolution has become more and more a remote possibility in our time, the country has to rely on all progressive  forces to contain the exploitation of the lower classes and move closer toward  a more equitable society.  In this the bourgeoisie must needs  be tapped because they have the training and the resources  that could turn society around ---- or make it sink faster down the drain.

Let’s face it. Your status, privileged by wealth and/ or education, has equipped you to take on in just a few years the leading positions in business, government,  culture and arts.  And as leaders, you will be in an enviable position to influence or control decision-making at the highest  echelons.  And your decisions will have far-reaching effects because what you captain will not be tiny boats but enormous ships, organizations that do not only have many members but have numerous connections to other organizations in our society.  At that point in your career, you can be a boon or a bane to your countrymen.  If you perpetuate the system that oppresses the people, you will have exacerbated their  abjection and misery.  If you alter or modify the system so that funds are not wasted on corruption and small people are somehow empowered economically, politically  or otherwise, then you will have contributed  to the economic and political liberation  of your fellow Filipinos.

And the good news is that many Ateneans have actually already proven themselves to be a blessing to their people.   I think of Dr. Jose “Ting” Tiongco, a brain surgeon  who established 50 cooperative hospitals all over the islands because he believed that  the poor deserve all the benefits of “health and humanity”.  I think of Jim Paredes and the APO Hiking Society who pioneered Pinoy Pop and jumpstarted the OPM revolution that first expressed and defined the Filipino in popular  music.   I think of OnofrePagsanghan, whose absolute dedication to teaching has helped to mold  thousands  of Ateneans to become better persons and Filipinos.  I think of President Noynoy, whose integrity is definitely a boon but needs to put his ship in order as soon as possible before it turns into a bane.

But to make your own contribution, you must each find your own vocation, that which you were meant to do, what your talents equipped  you for, what you were prepared for by  the family you were born into, the school you attended , the friends and acquaintances you cultivated, and, most of all, the country, time and place you lived in.  Once found, that vocation will not be a tedious job, but a joyous adventure, because it will be  where your vision lies, where your passion burns.  And this early, you should  already feel it in your bones.

That vocation I first felt in my bones in second year college at the Ateneo. In the early 60s, I would come home to Malolos for the annual vacation, bringing  books to read and stacks of classical music records  (borrowed from my teacher  Bien Lumbera) to listen to.  My parents, both hard-nosed business  persons  who ran a ricemill and our farmlands, were genuinely  worried about me.  Once my mother asked: “Anong mangyayari sa iyo? Wala ka nang ginawa kundi magbasa ng libro? Paano ka mabubuhay niyan?”  And I could not reply because it was true, I was not in any kind of course that would make me rich. Sabi niya, kailangan marunong ka sa buhay.   I appreciated my mother’s concern but stubbornly I continued to pursue my interest in arts and literature, eventually  becoming a lowly-paid instructor  at Ateneo in 1968 and,  later on, an even more  lowly-paid teacher at UP in 1974.  But I held on because by then, with the help of Mao Tse Tung’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum”, I had found my vocation in life  –serving my people through teaching and writing.  Obsessed with defining the identity  of the Filipino,  I  journeyed  to the provinces to study traditional dramatic forms  like the komedya, sinakulo  and  sarsuwela which had been marginalized or simply erased by our  westernized  education. Later, I studied Filipino films  as the site for the expression and definition  of the people’s culture.  I  lectured and wrote a play for PETA and joined demonstrations against the CCP in  1970  because it patronized mainly  elitist  and  colonial culture. 

Then it happened.  Because of everything I was doing in the arts and because of my academic background, newly-appointed CCP president Bing Roxas invited me to be her artistic director in July 1986.   As artistic director, I was given a free hand to expand the CCP into a National Coordinating Center for the Arts, reorient the institution  to serve  Filipino arts and artists first and foremost, democratize access to arts and culture, and  decentralize culture by establishing   arts councils all over the country so that the regions could play a role in the creation  of a Filipino national  culture.  To help develop  a national cultural consciousness, CCP published a ten-volume  encyclopedia  and 30 videos  and monographs  on Philippine Art. 

After eight years in CCP, I finally realized what everything  in my life so far had been preparing me for --- opening up the premier institution for arts and culture  so that Filipino artists from all parts of the archipelago could together create “a national culture evolving with and for the people.”  And the best part of it all was that as CCP slowly blossomed into  a true center for Filipino arts, I found my own fulfilment  as scholar, artist and cultural administrator.  Later, the CCP also prepared the bill that eventually created the National Commission for Culture and Arts.  Would all this have happened if I had forced myself to take a “practical” course like BS Commerce? This is not to put down in any way the commerce graduate who himself has a role to play in the economic development of this country.

And as for the fear that people who go into the arts are likely to starve , I am happy to report that I still eat three square meals a day (sometimes with too much cholesterol) and I have enough savings to pay for all the medical attention that my rapidly aging body requires.  Believe it or not, the biblical adage is true – “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven (which I think means your mission in life) and all these things will be added unto you (meaning, the universe will make sure you will be provided for).

In conclusion, I leave you then with these thoughts  which I hope will be of use to you  as you go into the “real world.”

First, always keep  your sense of philosophical wonder because it will prove to be nothing short of salvific later  on in your lives.   It will help you understand the way things are, critique the “order of things” and imagine a better world than the one we live in.

Second, when the time comes and you are ready for it, take a stand for what you believe is true and just, because such principled action will create innumerable  ripples in society and inspire and strengthen those like you who are seeking the truth.

Third, when you become captain of your own ship – in business, politics, culture --- use your position to professionalize your sector, to eliminate corruption and inefficiency in all levels, and to empower the people through your policies and programs.

Fourth, given your background and talents, find the vocation that is meant only for you so that you can  fulfill your mission in life and in society today.  If you find the vocation that is also your passion, your bonus is you will never have to work for the rest of your life.

Lastly, always be a true Atenean.  The Ateneo has produced thousands of graduates of all stripes and colors in the last 153 years – from top executives of multinational corporations to doctors who serve the poorest barrios, from supporters of the Marcos dictatorship to underground activists during Martial Law, from big businessmen to humble teachers and artists, from presidents, senators and supreme court justices to NGO environmentalists and partylist representatives.

Obviously  it takes more than a diploma to become true Ateneans, because the true Ateneans, to judge from the best examples of the species, are the persons who are able to realize their own selves by serving their  fellow men, in short,men and women for others.  It is not wealth or fame  that makes a great alumnus --- although fame and wealth can help to build much-needed academic infrastructure. (Like the theater that Badong Bernal had been asking for)  Rather it is the Atenean’s unwavering devotion to the upliftment of Filipino society.  To me, the true Ateneans are “mga taong  may  malasakit sa kapwa.”  As personified by the likes of Jose Rizal, who first opened the eyes of Filipinos to the evils of Spanish colonization; Gregorio del Pilar who willingly offered his life to save the President of the first Philippine Republic from falling into the hands of the Americans; Claro M. Recto who fought for true economic and political independence from the U.S.  after 1946; Francisco Soc Rodrigo and Evelio Javier, who bravely defied the dictatorship; Lamberto Avellana, the APO Hiking Society  and  Salvador Bernal who helped to define the Filipino soul through their respective art forms.  Most of you  will probably not be called upon to lead dramatic lives or die heroic deaths, but it is heroism as well  to do the very best that we can as we serve in the fields that we have chosen. 

Today begins your journey toward a life that we hope will always be marked by industry and excellence, and most of all, by deep concern or malasakit   for your fellow Filipinos.  Hinihintay na kayo ng Inangbayan. Go for it, guys. Maraming salamat po sa inyong pakikinig.