Thursday, August 28, 2008

Meeting greatness

Over these past many years, I have been privileged to meet, get to know and write about some of the great men and women of Asia (or GMWA as we have come to call them).

“Great Men and Women of Asia” is also the title of five volumes of easy-reading books (there’s more to come) that contain stories about the lives of Asia’s greats, both the known and the little-known, the times and milieu they live/d in and their contributions to enrich this part of the world through their selfless deeds, courage and creativity. Plus, plus.

Greatness of spirit or the G-factor is the plus that makes them a breed apart. It is a gift, a grace. The reason the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) picked these persons (and institutions, too) to be emulated.

The great news is that the GMWA series recently won the “Excellence Award for Best Writing in book form about Asia” at the 2008 Asian Publishing Awards held in Singapore. The GMWA books bested 79 entries from 23 countries. Congratulations to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) and staff, Anvil Publishing, the books’ editors and the bunch of us writers who had consented to be harassed. We did great in our own little way. Greatness has certainly rubbed off on us.

But long before these books on the RMAF awardees (now numbering 271 since 1958) were conceived, I’ve had the chance to meet and write about a good number of them year after year after year on RM week in August and on other occasions. The pieces came out in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, the Inquirer front page and in my column.

There were several greats I wrote about in the GMWA books but did not meet face to face (some had gone on to their eternal reward) but writing about them was like meeting them in person.

Established in 1958, the RM Award is widely regarded as the region’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It celebrates the memory and leadership example of the third Philippine President of the republic, and is given every year to individuals or organizations in Asia who have done the same selfless service exhibited in the life of the late and beloved Filipino leader. RM died in a plane crash in 1957.

Three RM awardees have gone on to win the Nobel Prize—the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Mother Teresa of India and Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh.

The Magsaysay Award is currently given in six categories: Government Service, Public Service, Community Leadership, Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, Peace and International Understanding, and Emergent Leadership.

The awards are given on Aug. 31, the birthday of the late Pres. Magsaysay.

I went through the list of awardees of the past years and I discovered I have written articles on 28 of them, among them, Thai Princess Sirindhorn, a doctor-nun working among lepers in Pakistan, a Chinese-Vietnamese priest-soldier who led refugees to freedom, a Filipino development worker, an Indian journalist, a Chinese doctor, a Sri Lankan musician. Some of them I had written about even before or long after they became awardees, others as newly elected awardees and some posthumously for the GMWA books.

Some of the RM awardees are my friends, like Ben Abadiano, Sheila Coronel, Inquirer founding chair Eugenia Apostol. The late movie director Lino Brocka was a comrade in the parliament of the streets.

Today I am interviewing three of the seven 2008 awardees. And on Monday I will watch the world-famous Cloud Gate Dance Theater from Taiwan founded by 1999 RM Awardee Lin Hwai Min.

Journalists are seldom awed, but I can say that every time I write about RM awardees I am awed and inspired by their stories. Some even bring tears to my eyes as I write. And, to borrow the title of a great Filipino’s autobiography, I am wont to exclaim, “I walked with heroes.” And saints, too.

From among those I have written about in GMWA, I can easily pick three as my favorites. All their stories could become thought-provoking movies.

Vinoba Bhave (1958, Community Leadership) belonged to the very first batch of awardees. An Indian mystic and patriot, Bhave continued where Mahatma Ghandi left off. Fr. Augustine Hoa’s (1964, Public Service) life story and cross-country work among refugees on the run unfold like a suspense novel. A China-born Vietnamese, Hoa braved the jungle and wielded a gun to defend his people. I wish I could track him down. Bhave has long been dead. I didn’t get to meet these two great men face to face.

Dr. Ruth Pfau (2002, Public Service), a German nun and doctor, chose to stay on in Pakistan to minister to the lepers. I interviewed her when she came for the award. The 70-ish Catholic nun looked beautiful in her Pakistani attire.

This year, the 50th year of the RMAF, is a special year. RMAF is holding a two-day international conference with the theme “Changing Asia: Forging Partnerships, Building Sustainability” at the Philippine International Convention Center. Among the participants are past and present awardees and kindred spirits from different sectors of society.

Asia is indeed changing rapidly. There has been phenomenal growth in some parts which means more opportunities for more people. But this phenomenon has also given rise to problems even as old inequities persist. The environment bears the brunt of rapid development.

But it’s not all bad news. Over the past 50 years, Asia has produced many inspiring leaders, among them 271 men and women who have been recognized and honored with the RM Award. They have used their leadership to effect change in their communities and inspire the younger generation.

Among the key issues these Asian laureates and participants from different sectors (business, civil society, media, academe, development assistance organizations, etc.) will confront are poverty and inequality, environmental degradation and social conflict.

There is hope. It’s raining greatness in August.