The Magsaysay Awards

Societies re-affirm their values in two ways: first, by punishing crime, and second, by recognizing good deed.  The moral crisis of today’s societies arises from the fact that they now tend to do less of the latter. Not so much for a lack of willingness to reward the good, but from a growing inability to identify what is good. When norms get blurred, indifference finds refuge in a crippling moral relativism.  Our capacity for revulsion is weakened.  We learn to negotiate duty.  We are no longer awed by moral beauty.

This situation is not helped by the proliferation of award-giving bodies that, at the toss of a coin, give out medals or trophies for the most banal achievements.  Neither is it relieved by the proliferation of “who’s who” publications offering instant fame for the price of a subscription.  By cheapening achievement, they make recognition a worthless event.  By trivializing virtue, they rob it of its power to inspire.  When cynicism reigns, we begin to doubt our own spontaneous admiration for many acts of goodness in everyday life.

Some values must be protected from erosion.  In the last forty-seven years, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation has tried to be a responsible trustee of one particular value – “greatness of spirit shown in service to the peoples of Asia.”  The key phrase is “greatness of spirit.”  The founders of this award believed this was the most striking trait of the late president, whose legacy we call to mind every year by the awards named after him. What can this value possibly mean in our time?

Haydee Yorac helped restore the dignity of the civil service at a time when government evokes only images of corruption and incompetence.  Undaunted and always willing to serve, Haydee showed that government work can indeed be the highest vocation of a citizen.  She is this year’s recipient of the Award for Government Service.

Jiang Yanyong of China is both a soldier and a doctor.  When the mysterious SARS ailment began to spread in his country, he worried that the official policy of concealing the true extent of the epidemic could result in the loss of more lives. His sense of duty as a doctor prevailed over the imperatives of military discipline. Dr. Jiang spoke out and called attention to the urgent need to inform and protect the population.  He is the recipient of the Award for Public Service.

Prayong Ronnarong is a rubber farmer from Thailand who refused to bow to the whims of the world market when the price of raw rubber dropped suddenly.  Why not process the rubber ourselves, he asked his fellow farmers.  A genius at community organizing, Prayong defied conventional thinking by building community-based rural industries. The model of rural industrialization he pioneered is now being replicated all over Thailand. He is the awardee for Community Leadership.

Abdullah Abu Sayeed of Bangladesh taught literature in Dhaka for many years.  He refused to think that his country’s economic poverty should also mean poverty of the mind.  He formed “reading circles” that got young people to study great works of literature. He acquired old buses, filled them with books, and launched them as mobile public-lending libraries.  Sayeed is the 2004 awardee for Journalism, Literature, and Communicative Communication Arts.

Laxminarayan Ramdas used to be the Chief of the Indian Navy. Today he is a staunch advocate of the de-militarization of the Indian sub-continent. He and the Pakistani human rights advocate, Ibn Abdur Rehman, shared the leadership of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy for many years, tirelessly organizing people-to-people dialogues across this troubled continent and speaking out against prejudice and war.  The Foundation confers on them the joint Award for Peace and International Understanding.

And finally, Benjamin Abadiano, the epitome of the young volunteer who, searching for personal meaning, finds it in being a person for others.  The Foundation honors him for his work among the Mangyan of Oriental Mindoro, for whom he started a comprehensive school now mostly staffed by Mangyan teachers. He is also being recognized for his work with thousands of families in Mindanao displaced by war, particularly the Lumad or indigenous tribes for whom he established the same culture-based training program he pioneered in Mindoro. Abadiano is the recipient of the Award for Emergent Leadership. A careful examination of the life and work of Magsaysay awardees reveals two outstanding traits. The first is courage, the second is generosity.  They are the same virtues that Ralph Waldo Emerson associates with heroism.

Of courage, Emerson writes: “It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence, in the plenitude of its energy and power to repair the harms it may suffer….It is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents….It persists, it is of an undaunted boldness and of a fortitude not to be wearied out.”

But courage is what it is because its wellspring is a generous heart.

“The brave soul,” wrote Emerson, “rates itself too high to value itself by the splendor of its table and draperies.  It gives what it hath, and all it hath…. The magnanimous know very well that they who give time, or money, or shelter to the stranger – so it be done for love and not for ostentation – do, as it were, put God under obligation to them, so perfect are the compensations of the universe.”


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