Safeguard Liberty, Conquer Poverty, Share Prosperity (Part One – For the Alumni of Mapa High)

Address delivered by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN as guest speaker during the Grand Alumni Homecoming of the Mapa High School held on February 23, 2014 at the Metro Tent, Ortigas Center, Pasig City

I thank Congressman Benny M. Abante Jr. and Beth I. Ong, President and Secretary, respectively, of the Mapa High School Alumni Association; Mr. Desidero Gurno, President of the VMapa Foundation; and my batch mate Leonides S. Bernabe Sr., President of the Blue Falcon Association, for inviting me as your “very special guest and speaker” during our Grand Alumni Homecoming today. Their letter of invitation asked me to speak on how I became a “sterling example of what a true-blue Mapan should be, one who is worthy of emulation and admiration not just by your past co-alumni but by the present and future Mapans as well.”

I am deeply honored by their kind words and specific request, even as I feel unworthy of their high esteem. Let me just say that I am what I am, in large part because of what I learned from Mapa High School, from our strict but competent teachers and from my brilliant classmates. Of our gurus, I fondly remember Mrs. Rocio Kapunan, our economics teacher who taught us how to save by requiring us to open savings bank accounts, Ms. Leticia Ramirez, whose lessons in English grammar I used when I wrote my decisions in the Supreme Court, Mrs. Magdalena Aytona, our always cheerful social studies teacher, Ms Gloria Reyes, whose Tagalog lessons I still remember up to now, and many others.


Mapa High of Old

During my stay at Mapa High from 1950 to 1954, there were only four major public high schools in Manila, which were all named after four eminent deceased jurists; namely, Chief Justice Cayetano Arellano in the north, Chief Justice Manuel Araullo in the south, Chief Justice Victorino Mapa in the east and Associate Justice Florentino Torres in the west. Of the four, Mapa High was the largest, with over 6,000 students. Our fourth year batch alone was composed of over 1,200 students.

Apart from its wooden three-story main building in Mendiola (which has now been replaced by a concrete structure), Mapa High rented several annexes in many parts of Manila. I remember we went to the Guipit Annex in G. Tuason Street, Sampaloc for our first year, to the R. Hidalgo Annex in Quiapo (where we had to squat on the cement floor for lack of school desks) for our second year, and to the main building for our third and fourth years.

Mapa High has distinguished alumni, many of them from the Supreme Court in fitting remembrance of the hero after whom our alma mater was named, like, to name a few, Justices Jose A. R. Melo, Efren Plana and Isagani Cruz. Of course, there are several more in other fields like Sen. Arturo Tolentino, Sec. Salvador Enriquez, accounting legends Washington Sycip and Alfredo Velayo, national artist Jose T. Joya, Dr.Yolando Sulit (a multi-awarded heart specialist), and yes, our esteemed President, Dr. Benny Abante.

Most of the students of my time, and I suppose even now, came from very poor families. But through education and hard work, we all overcame poverty and ushered in prosperity. Indeed, we all have the common denominator of conquering poverty through education and hard work. Looking back, we all defeated the curse of poverty and turned it into an opportunity; into our motivation to rise, and to excel in our respective professions and undertakings. We all proved that poverty is not an excuse for failure. Rather, it became our challenge for our success.

In my particular case, my family was so poor that I had to hawk newspapers, peddle cigarettes and shine shoes to support my elementary and high school education. I started hawking newspapers when I was eight years old and had to sleep on the cold sidewalks of Sampaloc, waiting for my ration of newspapers to sell. I shed many a tear in self pity thinking about other kids cuddling their soft pillows and sleeping in their warm beds. I promised myself an impossible dream: I would work hard so one day I would be president of the Manila Times, the largest-circulated newspaper at that time. In college, I had to sell textbooks to my classmates, and bibles to my professors.

Youthful Aspirations

Many of my classmates and I wanted to study at the University of the Philippines. Once in a while, we would go to the UP Campus in Diliman, and before the Oblation, we would promise one another that we would study diligently to earn scholarships at UP.

True enough, my friends and I got our cherished UP scholarships but unlike them, I was not able to study at UP because my impoverished parents could not afford the then 15-centavo bus fare from our small rented apartment in Cataluna Street in Sampaloc to the UP Campus in Diliman, Quezon City. They encouraged me to enrol at nearby Far Eastern University, which also granted me a scholarship.

I also tried to enrol at the University of Santo Tomas, which was also near our home, but I was not awarded a scholarship because I failed to answer the last of three simple questions of an old Dominican priest: First, he asked, “How many Gods are there?” to which I correctly answered “One”; second, he continued, “How many persons are there in one God?” to which I again correctly replied “three;” and third, he asked the tough question, “Name them” to which I sheepishly answered, “Susmaryosep! Jesus, Maria at Joseph.” Yes, I miserably failed the test because, to be brutally frank, I was a religious ignoramus.

After several years of persevering study, my Mapa High mates – some of whom are here – finished their studies at UP and distinguished themselves in their respective professions, like Dr. Cornelio Banaag Jr (a world famous psychiatrist), Dr. Reginaldo Picache (an accomplished surgeon in the US, who performed the first kidney transplant in our country three decades ago), Engineer Filemon Berba Jr. (who headed some of the biggest companies here), Banker Angelo Manahan, and his brother Architect Geronimo Manahan (past dean of the UP College of Architecture), and of course, my esteemed companero, Leonides Bernabe Sr.

Like Jun Berba, I wanted to be an engineer. In fact, in our Mapa High yearbook, I memorialized my “ambition: to be a chemical engineer.” But my strict father ordered me to take up law, saying “Napaka-pilosopo mo, kaya mag-abogado ka.” He himself finished only high school and never reach college. Being the eldest in his orphaned family, he had to work double time at two jobs at an early age to support his seven siblings and four children. Since I was his youngest child in a brood of four, he probably felt that I was his last chance to fulfil his frustrated ambition to be a lawyer.

I was, of course, doubly disgruntled. I was not able to enrol at UP, and I was not able to study chemical engineering. But taking up law at FEU turned out to be one of the best turns of my life, because I met there the brilliant law Dean Jovito R. Salonga who taught me his insights from the three schools he studied in, namely, UP for his basic law degree, Harvard for his master’s degree and Yale for his doctoral degree. I will always remember his basic advice: “Artemio, I know you have many extra-curricular activities, but your first duty is to be excellent in your academic studies.”

At FEU, I also encountered the culture icon Alejandro R. Roces who, at 37, later became the youngest secretary of education; and, the dignified FEU President Teodoro Evangelista who both encouraged my student leadership activities. I was the first sophomore student to win the presidency of the FEU Central Student Organization, and later to organize and head the National Union of Students, the largest student association in the Philippines.

Professional and Business Pursuits

After graduating cum laude from law school and after coping 6th place in the 1960 bar examination, I was – at the recommendation of Dr. Salonga – granted a scholarship at Yale. But I could not enjoy it because I was denied a travel grant by the US Embassy. Instead of graduate studies, I immediately took on three jobs: as an assistant in the law firm of Dr. Salonga, as legal counsel and consultant of Education Secretary Roces and as a professor at FEU. After three years, I formed my own law office. I also dabbled in business. I organized Baron Travel Corporation which enabled all our five children to travel to the United States and finish their graduate degrees in pedigreed universities, like Harvard, Stanford, University of California, University of Chicago and University of Michigan.

In 1985, I was elected in Rome, Italy as the first Asian and the only Filipino to be international chairman of the American Society of Travel Agents, the largest travel organization in the world. And in 1991, prior my stint in the judiciary, I became part-time president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest-circulated daily in our country, a fulfilment of my boyhood impossible dream.

I also intensified my study of my Catholic faith, took special tutoring from knowledgeable theologians like Monsignor Gerardo Santos, participated in Catholic charismatic seminars, and read over 100 books on religion. Fortunately, my strengthened faith was recognized by the Church. I was invited to be one among the few lay persons to join the Catholic bishops during the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1991. This Council, popularly known as PCP II, met daily for over a month to implement in the Philippines the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II. Later, I was named by Pope John Paul II as the only Filipino member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity based in Rome for the 1996-2001 term.


Journey to the Supreme Court

Like my entry to the law profession, I did not plan my journey to the Supreme Court. On June 17, 1992, then President-elect Fidel V. Ramos called me to his private office at Pasay Road in Makati and offered me to be his Secretary of Justice.

I was surprised at his unexpected offer, but I respectfully declined, saying “Thank you Mr. President but I am not worthy to join your Cabinet because I did not campaign for you during the last elections. I believe you should have only people of the same political persuasion in your official family. Besides, my dear wife is averse to any political office. She told me I could be anything except a politician.”

However, Ramos was insistent, explaining “I know you did not campaign for me. In fact, you did not even vote for me. You voted for your mentor, Jovy Salonga! But that is alright. I want to have a non-partisan Cabinet, to include even those who do not belong to my political camp.” He gave me two weeks to think about it.

After two weeks, he called me again. After I respectfully advised him of my wife’s adamant position, he finally said, “Ah, sa Supreme Court ka na lang.” I joyfully replied, “Mr. President, huwag po sana ninyong i-lalang ang Supreme Court. Okay po yan, independent at hindi political.” To cut the long story short, I was appointed a member of the highest court of the land by a President whom I thought was the last person to do that, he being on the opposite political camp of my defeated presidential candidate.

After I had served for 10 years as an associate justice, then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr. retired. Without much ado, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo named me the 21st Chief Justice of the Philippines without having spoken with me about it prior my appointment. I hope she did not regret having appointed me because the Panganiban Court was truly independent. In the big cases, we ruled more times against President Arroyo than in her favor.

For example, we invalidated the People’s Initiative in 2006, which would have changed our presidential form of government to the parliamentary system. Had the Charter change or Cha-cha been victorious and parliamentary system successfully installed, President Arroyo would have become Prime Minister, and could possibly have headed the Philippine government for an indefinite period of time, even up to the present, because re-election for any number of terms was not prohibited under the parliamentary system.

As a member of our highest court especially as chief justice, I tried my best to promote and implement my legal philosophy of “Liberty and Prosperity Under the Rule of Law.” In its most abbreviated sense, this means that our judiciary should not only safeguard the political and civil liberty of our people, like the freedom of expression, freedom of suffrage, the right to due process and the right to be presumed innocent till proven guilty. Equally important, the judiciary must also nurture the prosperity of our people, and secure them from illness, poverty and disease. To me, justice and jobs; freedom and food; ethics and economics; democracy and development; liberty and prosperity must always go together; one is useless without the other.

My Post Retirement Activities

After my retirement from the judiciary in December 2006, I changed tires and embarked on a new journey in the business community where I was elected independent member or adviser of the boards of directors of some of the largest and most prestigious corporations listed in the Philippine stock market. I enjoy my work because it requires independence, integrity, competence and probity, values I was used to in the judiciary. As an independent director, I do not represent any shareholder or private interest. Essentially, my work is to see to it that the companies I sit in observe faithfully the Securities Regulation Code and their Manuals of Good Corporate Governance.

After my retirement also, Inquirer Chair Marixi R.Prieto invited me to write for her paper. My guru, Dr. Salonga, tried to discourage me, saying, “I do not know of any retired chief justice who became a columnist. Chief justices do not write history; they make history.” However, I thought that column writing would force my mind to be agile and enable me to share my humble views on current public issues.

At this point in my life, I have also decided not to practice law. After I joined the Court, my partners and I dissolved our law office to pre-empt any accusation of insider lobbying by a favored firm. Neither have I accepted any regular teaching job or offers to rejoin government.

Giving Back to Society

My fellow Mapans, I do hope I have complied with your letter of invitation. But I cannot yet end because the letter of invitation also asked me to speak about how the present and future alumni of Mapa High can also serve our country; how we can all give back to society in our respective stations in life.

Well, my advice would still be consistent with my legal philosophy of “Liberty and Prosperity Under the Rule of Law,” with a more comprehensive scope, in the sense that all of us who succeeded through education and hard work, can help others, especially the poor and the underprivileged, by safeguarding liberty, conquering poverty and sharing prosperity.

By prosperity, I refer not just to money and material possessions. Rather, I refer to three “Ts:” time, talent and treasure. The sharing of time and talent is just as important as the sharing of treasure or money. Certainly, all of us have one or more of these three Ts of prosperity. Truly, “no one is so poor, he cannot share something; and no one is so rich, he does not need anything.” Even the rich and the powerful need medical and legal help, as well as the love, affection and care of real friends and relations.

To safeguard liberty, we need not be lawyers, we can be writers and artists, and by our work, protect liberty. When physicians, dentists and nurses go on medical missions, and when engineers and artisans volunteer their services to build homes for the victims of typhoon Yolanda, they share their time and talent. So do plain citizens when they peacefully rally to redress grievances, or simply use the various social media, like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, to develop the social conscience. Yes, through social media, you can pass on and forward interesting articles and readings to others.

At this point, you might say, it is easy to preach. But are you, Chief Justice Panganiban, practising what you preach? How are you sharing your three Ts  of prosperity? Are you leading by example? Or are you all talk and no walk? Well, modesty aside, let me answer that critical question.

First, I give back my time and talent by actively participating in selected foundations. Let me give three examples: (1) I am chairman of the Board of Advisers of Metrobank Foundation, which searches for and rewards excellence, and assists “the least, the lost and the last,” thereby enabling me to give back for the blessings I received as an impoverished newsboy, bootblack and cigarette peddler. (2) I am President of the Manila Cathedral Foundation which raises P200 million for, and oversees the reconstruction and retrofitting of the Manila Cathedral, thereby empowering me to reciprocate the bounties of our God; and (3) I am chair of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Liberty and Prosperity which, among other projects, created and administers 10 professorial chairs in 10 law schools, thereby allowing me to continue spreading my legal philosophy of “Liberty and Prosperity Under the Rule of Law” in my private capacity.

I would have preferred not to speak of sharing my treasure to charitable causes for these should really remain anonymous, but to answer the issue of leadership by example, I will just mention two items which are already of public knowledge. To celebrate my 75th birthday two years ago, I contributed half of my retirement pay from the Supreme Court to the Foundation for Liberty and Prosperity, and my one-year income as a columnist to the Inquirer Foundation for Newsboys. And today, may I contribute, starting next school year, eight subsistence scholarships for poor but deserving Mapans.

To God Be the Glory

After that rather long answer to your letter of invitation, let me finally conclude. When I was new in the Supreme Court in 1995, I composed a prayer that I would like to recite here, as follows:

“The Lord is my Shepherd. There is nothing I shall want. He has given me more than I deserve — a happy home, a healthy body, accomplished children over whom I no longer worry, a stable career, a chance to serve our people, an opportunity to be remembered longer than my own life. Other than fulfilling my role in the Court, I have no more earth-bound ambition. I live my life with only one consuming passion: on that inevitable day when I will finally knock at the pearly gates, my Lord and Master will open the door, spread his arms and say: ‘Well done on your earthly sojourn. You have passed the test. Welcome home to my everlasting Kingdom!’


          From the time I composed that prayer in 1995 up to the present, I look back poignantly at my trials and triumphs, victories and defeats, frustrations and exaltations; and, in all of them, I always find my faithful God.

Indeed, I have journeyed from being a poor newsboy in the backstreets of Sampaloc to being president of the most widely-read newspaper in our country; from an ignorant Catholic to being a member of the highest lay council of the Catholic Church in the Vatican; from a frustrated applicant for graduate studies to being father of five wonderful children who each achieved my impossible dream of graduating from a pedigreed US university; from a fumbling shoeshine boy to the board rooms of the best corporate giants in our country; from an aspiring chemical engineer to a reluctant lawyer and, finally, to the highest judicial position in our country.

As I contemplate my life and move toward its sunset, I know that God has woven my many pains and gains into a magnificent tapestry showing His mystical presence. Truly, there is one constancy in my life: the presence, care and providence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him I dedicate all I was, all I am, and all I will ever be. To God Be the Glory. Amen.

Thank you very much.

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