Justice For All

By Antonio P. Meloto

I am honored to be the commencement speaker of this prestigious school for lawyers despite the fact that I am not one. Your choice of a non- traditional speaker is my cue that you are not expecting this afternoon a discourse on the legal profession, but on something broader that concerns all of us and probably the reason why you invited me here- how you can build a great future in this country.

Let me start by asking the graduates to please stand up, so we can take a good look at some of the most intelligent and the luckiest young men and women in our country today. We all know that you cannot be a good lawyer unless you are sharp and have great passion for the law. Reaching this far, you have proven that you are indeed made of the right stuff; you also studied in San Beda Law school which has the highest passing average in the recent bar exam, at 93.3%, based on unofficial report. I have two prayers for your batch: first, is for all of you to pass the bar exam and second, for one of you to be the number one topnotcher following the footsteps of the last one to receive this distinction from San Beda forty years ago, my friend, Atty. Rodolfo Robles. You may take your seat now.

When I mentioned that you belong to the luckiest in this country, it was simply to highlight the obvious fact that most Filipinos cannot go to college, much less become lawyers like you. This is the reality in places that ignore social justice: they cannot provide equal and enough opportunities for all their citizens. It is therefore a privilege and a great responsibility to be a lawyer in the Philippines.

However, with this privilege, also comes great challenges. While you are smarter and luckier than most of your peers on one hand, it will be a struggle for you to build a successful career in a third- world economy where the majority of the population cannot afford the services of good lawyers. This is the first challenge that you will face. There is great need for your services due to the massive injustice, but also very limited resources to compensate you adequately for your efforts.

There is a second challenge. This is particularly relevant to the idealistic and to the cause- oriented among you. How can you preserve your integrity and the highest ideals of your profession in a corrupt environment, where many of the people and institutions that you have to deal with are either compromised or are perceived to carry a price tag?

Pardon me for raising these questions. I have no intention to discourage you or offend the distinguished graduates who came before you. However, it would be a great disservice to the country and an insult to your intelligence if I do not speak to you honestly and realistically. Besides, I would be missing a great opportunity to catch your attention at this stage in your life when you are most open and relatively uncompromised- there are no big scandals attached to your name, no heavy burden on your conscience, and no consideration of crossing your permissible limit, yet.

Yes, there are great temptations in this profession, but there are also many opportunities for greatness. This country has produced numerous champions of the law: dedicated members of the judiciary assigned in difficult high-risk, low paying posts; fearless human rights lawyers who fight for the weak and the powerless without guarantee to their own personal safety; and brilliant mentors who teach their students to love the law, but to love more the people in our country who cannot afford the law. This profession has raised many outstanding role models and great traditions that you can follow.

Of course, there are other options. If you go for power and money, which are the popular choices, you have many windows of opportunity since you are smarter than most of your peers. These two are the most compelling and irresistible drivers of human ambition in many societies in the free world.

If you want power, the conventional path in this country is to seek public office or to join the government bureaucracy. At the barangay level alone, which is the entry point for young politicians, more than 3 million candidates vie for elections every three years in 44,000 areas nationwide. Just a word of caution: power in our society is the privilege of the strong and the curse of the weak.

If money is your game, there is the alluring world of big business. Of course, the more lucrative practice is to be on the side of management to protect corporate profit and maintain industrial peace. Another word of caution: the coldness of the law can promote profit without a conscience and suppress not only the rights of the workers but also stifle genuine economic development that will improve quality of life and expand the market base.

This is how our version of democracy and capitalism have worked for us: bestow those with power to have more power, reward those with money to have more money. This is how we have been raised to see the world. This is our moral concept of what is right and what is good. For the fittest to thrive, the majority must resign themselves to poverty as their destiny.

Ironically, these are not the values preached to us in the pulpit, nor the ideals taught in our classrooms, but sadly, these are the practices we pass on to our children from generation to generation.

There are harsh consequences when we are unfaithful. Poverty is the curse of those who fail to practice what they preach. Corruption is the means to survive and perpetuate it. Hypocrisy is our way to justify and live with it.

This is the tragedy of countries whose people have great intelligence, but lack wisdom and moral leadership. Those with superior mental skills among us can legally defend and even legislate greed, despite the presence of a conscience that knows that what is legal is not necessarily moral.

The Philippines has become a country of squatters due to a fundamental flaw in our character: our concept of private ownership is not anchored on social justice but on plain and simple selfishness and greed.

The list of our tolerance for immorality is long: vast inalienable lands are titled to those with access to power; questionable tax loop-holes are the privilege of those who can afford the best lawyers and accountants; the biggest economic manipulators walk in the most prestigious circles in our society, protected by our laws and defended by the most intelligent and the most influential among us that money can buy.

And the vast majority who are poor? Well, they can cast their lot with jueteng, which is illegal, or line up at Wowowee, which is dangerous. As Marie Antoinette cutely suggested before she lost her head, “let them eat cake.”

Due to our loss of integrity, our history is playing out like a Greek tragedy. We are smart, we know what is wrong with us, yet we can’t seem to use our genius to lift ourselves out of our collective misery and shame. Humor, sarcasm, and cynicism- lately, through text messaging- have become our common outlet for personal and societal frustration and helplessness.

Your honors, in the light of the evidence presented, I plead guilty as charged. The brightest in my generation and many others who came before us, are guilty beyond reasonable doubt of what our country has become. We used our brains and our talents, our education from the most prestigious institutions, and our vast resources to manipulate the law to our advantage, to corrupt our culture, and to impose poverty on our people.

Many of us who live comfortably in our gated communities even have the unchristian insensitivity in this religious country to blame the poor for being poor- “kasi tanga, dahil tamad” (because they are dumb and lazy)- to cover-up for our accountability, our failure to practice authentic Christian stewardship, and our neglect of social justice. After keeping majority of our people landless and homeless in the countryside, we blame them for squatting in the urban areas in order to survive. I am not saying that we should justify squatting which is illegal, but we should simply stop blaming the victims and to sincerely seek correction of an unjust system.

I strongly disagree with the statement I read in the papers today that there is an oversupply of lawyers in the Philippines. On the contrary, we need more of them. Lawyers are as important as scientists, engineers, and economists in a developing country like the Philippines; only we do not have enough of them in the right places. Where there is grave social inequity in wealth and opportunity, we need more lawyers in the alternative field. According to Mahar Mangahas in his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer today, the alternative law groups are concerned with human rights in general. Legal education and research, legal policy reform advocacy, direct legal services, and test case litigation are major parts of their work.

When this finally happens, I will not be surprised to find more lawyers in heaven than other professions. The other thing that I admire in lawyers as a Filipino: this is the profession where most of the graduates do not leave the country.

Now, with the permission of your parents who belong to my generation, I would like to make this appeal to our new graduates. Please be wiser and better than us. Build on our achievements, but more importantly, learn from our mistakes. Please repair the damage that we have done to this country and heal the wounds that we have inflicted on our people. This way you can help atone for the sins of our generation, ease the burden on our conscience, and give us peace as we prepare for a gracious exit.

Before you set off to fight your windmills or slay your dragons or build your fortunes, I want to leave you some advice, being older and hopefully wiser, on how to live a meaningful life in this country that will honor your fathers and gain the respect of your descendants.

1. Take the high road. Go for integrity and honor above money and power. Your vision for success must be anchored on principles and values, not on greed and ambition. Money and power will come… and will last… and will be a source of happiness… if they are earned without shame and if they are used to promote the good of others.

2. Serve the greater good. Commit yourself to the bigger collective benefit, not just pursue your limited self-interest. Your families’ welfare will best be served not by confining them in the walls of your exclusive villages, but by joining us work for social justice until there are no more Filipinos who are squatters in their own land and no more troubled slums that will raise criminals who will harm our children.

3. Seek the highest interest of the lowest and the weakest. Serve the poor and you will gain a rich country. Help us liberate the urban poor from the control of squatter syndicates who rent out or sell the rights to private and public land that they do not own. Provide us legal support in securing land to relocate victims of calamities and conflict to safer areas where we can build productive Gawad Kalinga communities for them. If we do that effectively and expeditiously, we will stop many of them from squatting in Metro Manila and other cities; and hopefully, even do reverse migration back to the countryside in the future to those presently living miserable lives in our urban slums. We will recover our lost treasure and regain our social capital by bringing out the gold in our people who have been covered with dirt for generations because of neglect and exploitation.

4. Raise the bar of excellence in public service. Erase the public perception that all politicians in our country are corrupt. This is not an insult only to politicians, but to you and me as well as citizens of this country. In fact, it would be great if you would consider running for office and help bring new politics to our country and restore public trust in our political system.

If you want to serve, go back to the provinces where you come from with the right motivation to be a good leader and not simply to become another traditional politician who has mastered the art of winning elections by any means.

In our engagements with over 360 LGUs, I have always challenged the top local executive to become “the best mayor” his town ever had. Most of them have responded enthusiastically and we are seeing more and more of them becoming agents of change and builders of hope in their municipality.

If we fuel the momentum and continue to raise the bar of excellence, the ugly shanties that constantly remind us that we are a third-world country will soon disappear, the fields will be green with abundance, and those who have taken arms will go back to the comfort of their families and start to live in peace.

5. Finally, love this country with all your heart and value the privilege of being Filipino. Before you are a lawyer, a judge or a mayor, you are first a Filipino. For you to live in honor, you have to treasure your birthright and to raise the dignity of our people most of whom live without honor because of poverty and corruption.

Despite what’s happening around us, you can look forward to better times ahead if you do justice to your talent and you use it well to build a just and caring society. We have hit rock bottom and there’s no place to go but up, if we play our cards right. It defies simple human logic why this country shall remain poor while our Asian neighbors are achieving rapid growth, when our land is richer and our people are more gifted than most of them.

The future of the world is in Asia and the Philippines will become the center of attention soon because it is the most attractive in the region. We have to be ready because visitors and investors will come and our exiles will come home.

Just build and they will come. The sons and daughters of our nation are starting to arrive to help repair our broken walls; foreigners will bring the wealth of other nations to our shores.

There is an urgency to prepare our towns and cities before the flood gates open. We need to complement efforts at the top from government and business to improve fiscal policies and economic fundamentals with massive mobilization on the ground, so that the suffering majority is not left out. Right now, it is difficult to appreciate the benefit of a 7.3 GDP (Gross Domestic Product) if there is a corresponding increase in the poverty level from 30% to 33% based on the latest statistics from Pulse Asia.

We have to support efforts to bring development to the lowest level of the population at the soonest possible time where it will have the widest and the most visible impact. Right now, we have over 1,700 Gawad Kalinga communities nationwide with the goal to be in 7,000 sites by the end of 2010, impacting directly on the lives of 700,000 families living in extreme poverty. Our strategy of achieving scale is to create a template in every town and to replicate this in every barangay with LGU support.

The ultimate target is to reach 5 million families by sustaining the effort until 2024, or 21 years after we launched GK in 2003 as a global patriotic movement to bring the Philippines out of poverty and our people out of shame. Sustainability is possible if we attract various sectors to work with us, bringing with them their expertise and their resources to help us transform our country, community after community, town after town. The challenge for us is to maintain the integrity and the nobility of the GK spirit by rising above partisan politics and respecting religious and cultural differences. This is the reason why I have consistently reiterated that I have no desire to run for any public office and I have stopped eating pork out of respect for my Moslem friends.

We need your brains and your passion to achieve our dream for this country. You can contribute to this effort in many concrete and creative ways. To name a few:

1. Adopt a Gawad Kalinga village nearest your place and render 4 hours of legal service every month as your contribution to nation-building.

2. Champion a municipality and help us coordinate our efforts on township development with the LGUs.

3. Set up the GK Builders Institute on Good Governance at the San Beda Law School similar to what we have at the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance and the Ateneo College of Government.

If you want to volunteer with us, make it concrete, specific, and consistent. The country needs young patriots and heroes like you. The time to complain is over. It is now time to act and to find answers. It is now time to build communities, no longer the time to march in the streets. It is now time to heal the wounds of division and to mend what is broken. To everything there is a season. Now is that season.

In 1986, I risked my life and the future of my family in EDSA because I believed in an ordinary woman in yellow who had the courage to stand up for what is right. She helped me to find the strength within
myself to face danger for the sake of others. It was a time to be brave for those of us who were cautious and careful and even, scared.

On February 25, 2004 I was with her again in Baseco to launch People Power over Poverty with Gawad Kalinga by building 1000 homes for fire victims with the help of generous partners and heroic volunteers. It was a time to build our hope for the poor on the ground, hope that they could see and touch, and build with us.

Today, before I end, I would like to request for a moment of silence to pray for healing for Tita Cory who is fighting quietly and courageously her battle against colon cancer. May God heal her and keep her well.

As you leave this hall, remember that now is the moment of your life to shine. This is the time to show the world how truly intelligent and wonderful you are- because you are a Filipino.

Show that you have the power to love and to heal this country of the cancer of corruption and make her a strong and faithful nation.

Go to the remote areas and the forgotten places and bring peace and abundance to the countryside. Encourage the fishermen to fish without destroying the treasures of the seas, and inspire the farmers to plant with better technology and greater care in protecting the ecology.

Stay and prosper in the Philippines and show all the critics and the cynics how wrong they are when they say that this country is hopeless. Show them that every Filipino can be a miracle worker who can turn slums into beautiful communities, squatters into proud homeowners, and kaingeros into stewards and protectors of the forests.

Ladies and gentlemen, say goodbye to the old Philippines and to the old Filipino. Say goodbye to poverty and hunger, to squatters and slums, to scavengers and beggars, to dirty politics and corrupt politicians.

Let us welcome the new Filipino, represented here by our proud graduates, who will build a new Philippines, guarantee justice for all, and make this a great and prosperous nation.
God bless all the just and the brave heroes of our motherland.

Commencement Speech, San Beda Law School April 5, 2008

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