The Jan. 6 “invasion” of the US Capitol in Washington, by rioters incited by President Donald Trump is a classic example of the immense influence a single leader can wield over his followers, for good or bad. This has been true throughout history, and has led many a nation to new heights or unprecedented depths. But this is getting ahead of the story.
Two weeks ago, Alex Lacson, social reformer and author of the bestseller “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help His Country,” sent me a copy of his latest book “Five Hundred Years Without Love.” It is described as “a gripping novel that takes a comprehensive and wholistic view of the social cancer that continues to haunt the Philippines since Jose Rizal wrote his famous ‘Noli Me Tangere’ in 1887.” Through the life of the hero, a young lawyer from a poor family, the novel exposes the root causes of our country’s continuing struggle against poverty, the abuse of authority and the injustice suffered by the voiceless and the powerless—in short, the social cancer that persists today, 122 years after our first colonizers left.
In his own words about the book, the author says, “When a few people in a society become rapacious … a social cancer arises. When it goes on unabated, it will destroy others and may bring society to ruin and perdition … This is happening in our society today.” He ends the introduction by asking, “Where is the cure coming from? Where is the hope of the many?”
What has impressed me most about the book is that the author did not stop with these questions. At the end of the book, there are two essays in which he speaks through the pen of the novel’s hero.
The first essay, titled “A Global Cancer,” identifies the root cause of today’s social ills, in our country and globally. It is greed, which has pervaded every sector of society—government, including the military and police; media and education; religious communities; and, most specially, the business sector.
The second essay, “A Dream Philippines,” articulates his personal vision for our country—one where there is enough for everyone, where a person can reach his/her highest potential, in a community bound by love, brotherhood and the common good.
But more than just an idealistic, pie-in-the-sky aspiration, the author outlines a sufficiently detailed road map of how that vision can be achieved. The essay proposes that we do not have to reinvent the wheel, but look to the experience of other countries—12 in all—which have succeeded in overcoming specific socioeconomic impediments to improve the lives of their citizens. Using them as models, the author tackles different key components: agriculture, basic enterprises, government involvement in citizens’ basic needs, public housing, manufacturing, etc., including today’s urgent global issue, the environment.
I have gone into some detail in describing Lacson’s book, not only to dwell on its merits, but to emphasize our country’s dire need for leaders who nurture a long-term vision for the benefit of those they aspire to serve. As in any important undertaking, they need to have goals for their constituents in their chosen field—be it at the local, sectoral or national level.
Sad to say, judging from where we are today, the long line of leaders we have had through the many years since our country gained its independence has, on the whole, failed our people—with the exception of a few visionary individuals. From being the second best economy in Asia, next only to Japan in the 1950s, and except for brief periods of creditable performance, our country has become a laggard, overtaken even by our late-blooming Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors.
Through various administrations, it is sad to note that many outstanding, civic-minded citizens for whom the country came first, who ran for office, never got elected. Instead, the halls of both houses of Congress and local elective posts have been populated by “traditional politicians” and individuals who are there only because of name recall, popularity (e.g., entertainers), dynastic entitlement, or political patronage by the ruling powers. Their “vision” often has not extended beyond self-interest, a parochial perspective, or worse, the prospect of accumulating dubiously acquired wealth.
Indeed, the leaders of a nation have the biggest role in bringing it to excellence, mediocrity or misery—the latter, if they have no vision for their country, or worse, if their vision is flawed.
For us and the rest of the free world, the recent experience of the United States is a crucial object lesson. After only four years in office, the country’s president had brought the world’s premier democracy to the brink with the occupation of its Capitol by his followers, this after persistently testing its long-established democratic institutions to their limits in the aftermath of the November elections. Fortunately, those institutions held firm because the conscientious state and federal officials who administered or implemented them stood their ground—a testament to the deep roots of US democracy. Nevertheless, the crisis shocked the free world and has shaken its reputation as the global democratic model.
The US experience shows once more how leaders have the biggest role in determining the paths and fortunes of their nation. And how a single leader’s unbridled personal agenda to remain in power at any cost can wreak havoc on his country. We should know. We have been there before. —CONTRIBUTED INQ