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Youth Leadership and Positive Change

20 March 2009

24th Induction and Turnover Ceremonies
Junior Chambers International Metro Cebu Uptown
Casino Espanol de Cebu

It is an honor to be your guest speaker at this 24th Induction and Turnover Ceremonies of your JCI chapter here in Metro Cebu. And I thank you also for the respite that this affords me to visit this vibrant and dynamic metropolis once again.

Whenever I visit Cebu, I never fail to be impressed by the changes that have taken place in between my visits. One day I see a major project in one side of town being built. By the time of my next visit that project is already a full-blown reality, and there’s another part of town and another major project in the works. The activity never ceases. It’s been like this for over 15 years now. The sense of a city and province growing and developing is palpable and real. That’s how dynamic you Cebuanos are!

This can-do mentality is reflected by your club – and in the theme of this year’s induction: “Bond of Leaders Be Better: Yes We Can.” Through your active leaders and members, you have shown what is possible when you apply the JCI principle that “service to humanity is the best work of life.”

The same mentality is personified by the JCI’s annual TOYM awards, which is the country’s most prestigious recognition for young men and women whose selfless dedication in their chosen fields have resulted in significant contributions to our national life.

Can-do Mentality of the Young

It is the subject of Youth Leadership that I want to highlight tonight in my remarks. And I want particularly to speak about Youth Leadership and Positive Change.

In the statement of its mission, the JCI says that you contribute “to the advancement of the global community by providing the opportunity for young people to develop the leadership skills, social responsibility, entrepreneurship and fellowship necessary to create positive change.”

Those words are pregnant with meaning in more ways than one. They do not speak of just any kind of change; they speak of positive change. They speak of creating it through the exercise of leadership, social responsibility, entrepreneurship and fellowship.

In graduate business school, this is also what we talked about. Business leaders and managers concern themselves with building futures – the future of companies and organizations, and the enterprises and projects they are engaged in. They don’t devote their time to laying schemes for negative change, like say destroying their competition. Companies don’t prosper in that way.

I think it’s timely and important for us to emphasize this because it is election season again in our country. A year now, our citizenry will be electing all public officials in our land – from president to councilor, with the single exception of barangay officials. And more likely than not – as indeed we are already starting to see –there will be a flood of attacks and counterattacks in our public life as we approach the elections in 2010.

I think this paradigm for political success is overrated and oversold. Our people are weary of the politics of bombast, of attack and destroy, of incessant heckling. They look for something more in the candidates and in our local and national politics. I believe they yearn for candidates to talk of what they can really contribute and build should they be elected.

This is especially true of the attitudes of young Filipinos today. When I look at our young people, I see young men and women who don’t care much about the fevered headlines in the newspapers and television today. They are turned on rather by the new things that are happening in the different aspects of modern life – in the arts, in entertainment, in sports, in business and technology, and in lifestyles. They yearn to create something of their own – and to contribute to the sum of good in their society.

There is a different mindset among the young. Where the older generations are inclined to say that something cannot be done – like, say, taking our country to the heights of modernization and development or stopping corruption and environmental degradation in our country – young people say readily, “Yes, we can.”

This positive outlook, this sense of empowerment is part and parcel of the age of change we live in, when what we once thought was impossible has come to pass.

It is an inevitable byproduct of the Internet – which is plainly the most important modernization in over a century, and which is literally transforming life as we know it, including life in what we used to call the Third World.

A Young Country

Now having said that, I want to stress next that the Philippines is a young country. Young not in the sense of young historically; but young in the sense of population.

What is striking about our population is not so much the fact that we are now 92 million. It is rather that people of working age – from 15 to 64 – constitute about 62% of our population. As of 2005, those ages 15 to 32 constituted 35.5 million, representing 41% of our total population.

Conversely, the proportion of our population who are of dependent age – the children and the elderly – account for only 32%. And the elderly in particular are less than 5%.

To economists and demographers, such a demographic structure presents dynamic opportunities for economic growth. Nations with such a structure can enjoy a boost to income because of the higher share of the working age population, the accelerated accumulation of capital, and the reduced spending on dependents. Harvard University has christined this phenomenon as “the demographic dividend” – which when combined with effective public policies in education and health care can stimulate rapid economic growth.

The power of this dividend has already been seen in the dynamic growth of East Asia – in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Today, we are seeing it in China and India.

And I submit that it is now our turn in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

The relative strength and resiliency of our economy today owes in great part to our young human resources, and our early efforts to educate and develop them. It is the energy of our young – working at home and abroad – that is driving the nation forward. It is their earnings and savings that are sustaining us during these times when exports are declining as a result of the global recession. And it is their continued development through education and training, and their deployment in domestic industry and overseas that will provide vitality to our national life.

But there is a caveat here, which we do well to always remember. Harvard’s Professor David Bloom says that reaping the democratic dividend is not automatic. “It depends on whether countries have good government institutions and functioning markets and invest on their children. If they don’t. the dividends could turn into debacles.”

In the short term, the debacle will consist of masses of jobless adults. Decades hence, it is the huge burden of the elderly. This is what has happened to much of Africa, in contrast to Asia.

Developing Our Youth

Consequently, there is no more important policy for our country to pursue today than the education of our young. As Tony Blair has said: “Education is the best economic policy there is, and it is in the marriage of education and technology that the future lies. The arms race may be over, the knowledge race has begun.”

Some may think that this is a competition where we Filipinos cannot compete with the world. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Consider. Filipinos are among those who are driving the Internet forward. Our young people today are making their own contributions in terms of software and innovations. Poor as we are, our young people who are in school are tuned in to the Internet, using it for their studies and research.

Consider. Upon the introduction of wireless telecommunications in the ‘90s, we Filipinos led the way in expanding the possibilities of text-messaging and in introducing innovations like the pre-paid cards and pasa-load for cellphones. Today, because of the engagement of our lower-income groups in telecommunications, business has been revolutionized many times over. And I believe it has enhanced the so-called informal or underground economy.

Consider. In Business Process Outsourcing, we are now second only to India as a favorite destination of companies in America, Europe and Japan. The highest growth of jobs in the country today is in BPOs and call centers. This compensates for the estimated 45,000 jobs already lost in our export industries.

Consider. Philippine education is a vital backbone of the economy. For all its shortcomings, our educational system – both our public and private schools – is a major pillar of national life. As we continue to improve on it with timely reforms and better infrastructure, Philippine education will take us to the forefront of international economic competition.

Finally, consider our Overseas Filipino Workers. This program, born during my father’s time and much criticized at birth, has become the veritable backbone of the Philippine economy. Our over 10 million workers abroad are much valued in almost every country and region of the world. Wired Magazine, the premier voice of the Internet age, has called us Filipinos “the leader and pacesetter of the distributed economy” of contemporary times.

A New Decade

All this has convinced me that the best policy for the nation to follow is one of innovation and modernization as we enter the second decade of this new century.

The politics of the past will not do for the challenges of today. Though we will always value the achievements of the past, we cannot answer today’s questions with yesterday’s answers. And still less can we answer them if we indulge in the quarrels of the past.

It is in this light that we must exchange the politics of negativism for the politics of positive change. Negativism is easy because all you have to do is deny, deny, deny one’s opponents of any claims to achievement or virtue. Positive change, however, demands that you apply yourself to problem solving.

Our problems in infrastructure, corruption, inefficiency, slum communities, local governance – all are susceptible to solutions if we apply ourselves to the tasks, and not to just talking about them.

In business management this is elementary because you cannot blame your competition for your problems. You either solve them or you perish.

In non-government and civic organizations like the JCI, this is also fundamental. People in this network do not spend their time raining hell on others; they focus their attention on problem-solving and being of help to the communities they serve. They are usually in a race with time.

I believe it is this orientation to problem-solving that will be most appealing to our young people and will enable our country and our people can grow out of poverty.

In a sense, it is only fitting that it is our young people who are carrying us forward, because our nation was born of the vision and struggles of very young men and women. Beginning with Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo, Mabini, and others, the heroes of our awakening to independence were only in their 20s, sometimes no more than teenagers. Rare in that dramatic and historic time were reformers and revolutionaries who were already past 40. Yet they gave shape to the Filipino nation and our destiny as a people.

Today, in this new time of challenge and opportunity and if we harness this resource properly, I believe the energy and fearlessness of our young people will carry us to the front ranks of the nations of the world.

I see this in the faces of young students when I visit campuses across our country – faces that are hopeful, eager, and unafraid to explore new knowledge and new ideas in their quest for learning.

I see this in the faces of young OFWs who are going into the world for the first time – with no fear of the new lands they will be living in and determined solely to make the best for themselves and their loved ones during their time of exile.

I see this when I look at my three teenage sons who are just beginning to come to their own, and who look at their country and countrymen with total confidence that we can compete with the world.

Finally, I see this in you – my friends in the Junior Chamber International Metro Cebu Uptown – who exemplify the vigorous leadership that young professionals and citizens can provide our local and national community.

We are all called to this work of positive change amidst the political contentions of the times. This is why I am in politics. And I believe this is why you are in the JCI movement

Congratulations and more power to you all! Mabuhay!