The universality of greatness

Seven Asians are this year’s recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards.  The awardees are being recognized for their greatness of spirit and outstanding service to others.  None of them is a Filipino.  Some observers have taken this as a commentary on the scarcity of greatness in our present society.

The concern about not seeing a Filipino winner this year is understandable in view of the need to lift ourselves from the mood of self-lacerating demoralization in which we seem to find ourselves. But, as a new trustee of the Foundation, I can say with confidence that the absence of a Filipino among this year’s awardees does not indicate a lack of greatness among our people. The award is given to individuals and institutions from all over Asia that have distinguished themselves for their bold and exemplary achievements.  We assume that such greatness exists in equal measure among the various peoples of this vast continent.

By its sheer size, China, the world’s most populous country, should have the most number of awardees.  But it does not.  In the 43 years that the foundation has given its awards, China has had only five winners. In contrast, the Philippines has had 32, next only to India, from whose population of almost one billion people the foundation has chosen 38 awardees in the last 4 decades.

While greatness may be equally distributed, public recognition obviously is not.  China’s under-representation in this Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize mirrors its long isolation from the world community. Today, as China opens its doors and windows to the world, it is easier for the rest of humanity to appreciate models of individual greatness that have flourished in that society all these years.

Two of them are singled out for recognition this year.  The awardee for Government Service, Yuan Longping, is a plant scientist who created China’s most successful hybrid rice.  Half of his country’s vast farms are planted to the high-yielding seeds he invented, enabling his nation of 1.3 billion people to become self-sufficient in this basic staple food. China’s farmers revere him for bringing prosperity to their villages.  The patents he holds to these miracle seeds would make him a millionaire, but he donates the proceeds from his inventions to a fund for scientific research. On the night of the awards, he received his medal and diploma in faded trousers and a loose jacket, reflecting the simple lifestyle he leads to this day.

Wu Qing, the awardee for Public Service, started out as a teacher of English in Beijing.  She was so effective among her students that she was asked to teach popular English to a television mass audience.  In an instant, she became the favorite teacher of millions.  In 1984, Wu won a seat in their district’s People’s Congress representing her school. Now she is a deputy to the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress, a position to which she has been reelected four times.

Wu Qing champions women’s rights and the rule of law in a society that continues to be in the grip of feudal and patriarchal values.  She travels widely to promote self-improvement among China’s women, putting up a training center to impart skills to rural women and out-ofschool girls so they may establish a basis for personal and political autonomy.  She launched the first university course on feminism in China.  She set up a hotline in Beijing for women confronting problems of domestic violence, sexual harassment, childcare, family planning, and divorce.

We may take achievements like Wu Qing’s for granted in the Philippines.  But we must view their significance in the context of the cultures and societies in which they make their mark.  Like Wu, the two awardees for Emergent Leadership – Oung Chanthol of Cambodia and Dita Indah Sari of Indonesia – have to contend with social and political realities that leave little space for meaningful intervention, let alone by women.  Oung, at 34, runs a pioneering shelter for victims of sex trafficking near the Thai border.  Dita, at 28, leads one of the most militant labor unions in post-Suharto Indonesia. Imprisoned several times, she is at the forefront of her country’s difficult transition to democracy.

The spark of greatness can rekindle a people’s spirits often in the most basic areas of human activity.  India’s Rajendra Singh, the awardee for Community Service, does it by helping communities revive and protect their water sources.  Employing local technology, he made it possible for hundreds of communities in his country to improve their lives by securing a most precious need, water.  What Rajendra did for water, the Sri Lankan musician, Amaradeva, the awardee for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, did for his people’s music.  He revived it, enriched it, and made it accessible to the popular masses.

But for all our specific and differing concerns as nations, we remain part of a whole, with a common heritage of human achievement.  The awardee for Peace and International Understanding, Ikuo Hirayama of Japan, testifies to this truth.  A survivor of the Hiroshima nuclear blast, he found strength in Buddhism and went on to become a famous painter.  Despairing over the sorry state of historic ruins everywhere, he devoted himself to preserving monuments to human achievement against the perils of war, vandalism, and neglect.  In this he found common cause with UNESCO.  Hirayama travels far and wide rescuing priceless artifacts and calling international attention to the urgency of protecting them in the name of future generations.

Greatness, ultimately, has no nationality.


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